Discerning Real from False Claims of Anti-Semitism in the Pro-Palestinian Movement

As the U.S. movement in support of Palestinian rights gains momentum, it has come under increasing attack by supporters of Israel’s right-wing government and defenders of its occupation and colonization of occupied territory. For example, governors, state legislatures, and members of Congress of both major parties have referred to efforts to use such tactics as boycotts, divestment and sanctions in opposition of such policies as “anti-Semitic.”

Turkey’s Creeping Authoritarianism: Is the Resistance Enough?

Turkey’s march towards authoritarianism took another dangerous turn this past week with the forced resignation of moderate Islamist Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, apparently at the insistence of President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an.

Though constitutionally the Turkish prime minister wields executive authority and the president is largely a figurehead, Erdo?an—who served as prime minister for eleven years before term limits forced him to step down in 2014—appears to still be in charge.

And he is becoming ever more autocratic.

With his Justice and Development Party (AKP) controlling a sizable majority in parliament, Erdo?an has been steadily increasing his grip on power, with police raids on opposition media, the jailing of independent journalists on trumped-up charges, severe repression in Kurdish-populated areas and arrests of even moderate non-violent Kurdish leaders for alleged terrorist ties, the undermining of the independent judiciary, and the arrests of political opponents.

Though often portrayed as a struggle between autocratic Islamists and democratic secularists, the situation in Turkey is not that simple. The secular nationalist governments which ruled the Turkish Republic for most of its first eight decades were either semi-autocratic center-right plutocracies or rightwing military dictatorships, with those subsequent to World War II maintaining close strategic ties with the United States.

The election of Erdo?an and the AKP in 2003 was initially welcomed by some pro-democracy elements as a means of weakening the military’s overbearing influence, breaking up the old corrupt oligarchic order, and challenging U.S. hegemony. However, the AKP has proved itself to be at least as corrupt, oligarchical, deferential to the wealthy and powerful economic interests as the secular elites they replaced. Erdo?an’s social conservatism and Islamist rhetoric has alarmed both Western nations and educated secular Turks.

In addition, Erdo?an has cultivated a kind of cult of personality not seen in a Turkish leader since the days of founding President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Indeed, rather than resembling Iran of the ayatollahs as some initially feared, it is instead looking increasingly like the Russia of Vladimir Putin.

Just as the United States and European governments tolerated previous military dictatorships on the grounds that Turkey was a valuable NATO ally in the struggle against Communism, however, Western leaders have similarly demonstrated little inclination to challenge Erdo?an’s repression given his perceived role as an ally in the struggle against Islamist extremism.

Not that taking him on would be easy.

Erdo?an remains genuinely popular. In a manner comparable to conservative Republican leaders in the United States, he has taken advantage of the resentment of religious Turks in rural areas and poor working class communities, winning their allegiance by portraying himself as their ally against liberal secular urban elites, despite the fact that the AKP’s economic policies primarily benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor majority.

This cultural divide has been exacerbated by the often-condescending views towards AKP supporters held by educated Europeanized liberals of the country’s western cities. Many of these urbanites express nostalgia for former governments led by long-discredited corrupt secular nationalist politicians or military rulers. This has made the development of an electoral majority that can successfully challenge the AKP’s growing power extremely difficult.

The good news is that this has not stopped the people of Turkey from fighting back.

Civil society movements, stressing democracy and economic justice, are growing and becoming better organized. In 2013, the violent breakup of a nonviolent sit-in in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park protesting a planned urban development project in one of the city’s few remaining downtown green spaces spawned a mass movement demanding greater democracy, government transparency, and economic justice. Over the next several weeks, over three and a half million Turks took to the streets in more than 5,000 demonstrations across the country.

As with the Occupy! movement in the United States, the protesters were unable to sustain their momentum, but it has helped spawn important grassroots initiatives and curtailed the state’s efforts at consolidating power still further. Organized labor, feminists, environmentalists, civil libertarians, and anti-war activists have become increasingly bold in challenging government policies, as have those fighting government corruption, economic injustice, and suppression of Kurdish rights.

And just as Turkey has produced elite autocratic secularists, it has also developed progressive democratic Islamists. A group known as Antikapitalist Müslümanlar (Anti-Capitalist Muslims) has played an important role in the popular opposition, challenging the corruption, arrogance, social conservatism, and crony capitalism of the new Islamic bourgeoisie nurtured by the AKP, and instead stressing Islam’s message of social justice, respect for the environment, and honest governance.

Antikapitalist Müslümanlar have organized a series of campaigns and creative public protests challenging the AKP’s claims of representing religious Turks. During Ramadan, when the ruling party hosted an ostentatious iftar (the evening meal breaking the daylong fast) for the party’s wealthy supporters in Taksim Square, they put together a simple “people’s iftar” for thousands sitting on the pavement in a nearby pedestrian mall.

Whether such mobilizations of pro-democracy forces, both Islamic and secular, can coalesce into a large enough force to prevent Erdo?an from establishing a full-fledged dictatorship remains to be seen. The forces of reaction are gaining strength in Turkey, but so is the democratic resistance.

Berrigan’s witness to nonviolence challenged church and nation

Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan, who died at the end of April, not only challenged the conscience of the Catholic church and the nation on the dangers of militarism and the need to affirm Christ’s teachings of nonviolence, he challenged those who oppose war to engage in direct action to stop it.

He was a devout Catholic amid the largely secular anti-war left. He opposed abortion as a form of violence while most of his colleagues in the peace movement identified as “pro-choice.” He remained a priest while many of his contemporaries, including his brother Philip, left the priesthood for marriage or over doctrinal disputes. Berrigan was guided not by adherence to a particular ideology, but by a deep faith in God through the nonviolent witness of Jesus Christ.

Over the decades, I prayed with him, broke bread with him, was arrested with him, and discussed matters of politics, theology and movement-building. We did not always agree. Yet his warmth, his humor, his faith, his wisdom and his commitment always left me inspired.

His actions led him to become one of the best-known priests of the 20th century. Yet he had no desire for people to follow him. He simply wanted people to follow the Gospel.

Like many Americans, I first learned of the Berrigan brothers in 1968 when they and seven other Catholic activists entered the Selective Service office in Catonsvillle, Md., seized hundreds of draft files and, using homemade napalm similar to what was then being dropped on Vietnamese villages, burned them in the parking lot.

In a statement following the incident, the group which became known as the “Catonsville Nine” declared, “We confront the Roman Catholic church, other Christian bodies, and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country’s crimes. We are convinced that the religious bureaucracy in this country is racist, is an accomplice in this war, and is hostile to the poor.”

Traditionally, pacifists have believed that nonviolent action should eschew damage to property. Dorothy Day, for example, thought that the Berrigans’ advocacy of property destruction and other militant tactics crossed a dangerous theological threshold.

However, the Berrigans firmly believed that some property — such as nuclear warheads and draft files — had no right to exist and it was the responsibility of pacifists to destroy them, as long as people were not harmed. Their actions were intended to shock, as the American people needed to be made aware of the enormous danger from their nation’s militarism.

While most activists of that era sentenced to prison for nonviolent resistance would turn themselves in to authorities, Berrigan and his brother, Philip, were willing to go underground, even showing up unannounced to speak at rallies and church services then disappear before they could be arrested. They became folk heroes, appearing on the cover of Time magazine and becoming the first priests to appear on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.

At the same time, they never wavered from their opposition to violence, particularly as the Weather Underground and other extremist anti-war groups began a campaign of bombing. In The Village Voice, Berrigan wrote, “The death of a single human is too heavy a price to pay for the vindication of any principle, however sacred.”

The first time I met Berrigan was in October 1973 during the Arab-Israeli War, when I was 16 years old, at a talk he gave in Washington, D.C. While many peace activists at that time would avoid the often divisive issue of Israel and Palestine, he decided to address it head on. Unlike many liberals of that era who opposed U.S. militarism but rationalized for Israeli militarism, he could not defend militarism by anybody. His analysis was blunt and he did not try to be “balanced,” but it was basically an accurate and honest assessment. In short, it was typical Dan Berrigan.

He noted how Israel was, like the United States and South Africa, “seeking a biblical justification for crimes against humanity.” He expressed his regret that “in place of Jewish prophetic vision,” Israel had launched “an Orwellian nightmare of double talk, racism, fifth-rate sociological jargon, aimed at proving its racial superiority to the people it has crushed.”

Noting the similarities of Israel’s “military-industrial complex” with that of the United States, he observed how “Israel has not freed the captives, she has expanded the prison system, perfected her espionage, exported on the world market that expensive blood-ridden commodity, the savage triumph of the technologized West, violence and the tools of violence.” He also noted that he “was very depressed by the silence of my own church about Israel.”

As with many of his words and actions, giving such a speech at that time was not very strategic, leading to widespread criticisms and misinterpretation. Similarly, his later arrests, largely focused around trespassing at nuclear weapons facilities, which at times included damaging components of warheads and missiles, led to many months in prison without much publicity or a discernible growth in the movement. However, strategic efficacy did not really matter to him. For Berrigan, it was a moral imperative. Indeed, when a reporter noted he was not getting as much attention as he had previously, he replied, “I don’t think we ever felt our conscience was tied to the other end of a TV cord.”

And yet, while some accused him of acting more out of “Catholic guilt” than on building a movement, Berrigan’s witness indeed had a profound impact. It encouraged the broader anti-war movement, which prior to Catonsville had been primarily focused on street protests, into nonviolent direct action and other forms of active resistance. It brought many young Catholics, who had been alienated by the hierarchy’s support for the Vietnam War and U.S. militarism, back into active involvement in the church. As a middle-aged priest, his actions brought greater credibility to opponents of the Vietnam War, then often portrayed as angry, young, long-haired misfits.

And he undoubtedly played a role in moving the Catholic church to a more active witness for peace and justice. The church eventually came out against the Vietnam War, renounced the legitimacy of nuclear weapons, and challenged the Israeli occupation and repression of Palestinians.

Indeed, just days before he died, the Vatican hosted a landmark meeting raising questions about the just war doctrine and examining nonviolent alternatives. Would this have even been possible were it not for such prophetic voices as Berrigan?

Hillary Clinton’s strident opposition to the International Criminal Court

Supporters of international law have expressed consternation that the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for president — like most of her potential Republican rivals — strongly supported the illegal U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Hillary Clinton’s support for the Bush administration’s request for war authorization effectively placed her in opposition to the United Nations Charter and the Nuremberg Principles forbidding such wars of aggression. Ironically, these important international legal standards were in large part designed by officials from administrations of the very political party she hopes to represent in the contest for the White House.

Clinton’s defenders insist that her vote in support of the invasion was simply a “mistake,” as if this graduate of Yale Law School had somehow forgotten such basic principles of international law or the obligation of the United States, under Article VI of the Constitution, to uphold such binding international treaties.

However, the Democratic front-runner’s hostility towards international law goes well beyond her support for the Bush administration’s imperial ambitions in the Middle East. In previous columns, for example, I have noted her support for Morocco’s illegal annexation of the occupied Western Sahara, her support for Israel’s illegal annexation of occupied greater East Jerusalem and proposed annexation of large segments of the occupied West Bank, her defense of Israeli war crimes, and her attacks on the International Court of Justice for its 2004 ruling upholding the application of the Fourth Geneva Convention in territories under foreign belligerent occupation.

One of the most disturbing examples, however, is in regard to her strident opposition to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The ICC was established by international treaty in 2002 in The Hague, Netherlands, as a means of prosecuting individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, and related international war crimes. It grew out of the 1998 Rome Statute signed by the United States and 122 other countries in the hopes of finally establishing accountability for individuals for serious violations of international humanitarian law.
In response to the signing, right-wing talk show hosts and other conspiracy theorists here in the U.S. began claiming that the ICC would force American soldiers to stand trial before an anti-American tribunal on trumped-up charges without basic defendants’ rights, part of what many saw as a plot by the United Nations to impose a “world government.”

In reality, the ICC only has jurisdiction in cases where national courts are unable or unwilling to prosecute soldiers or others for such crimes. Despite some notable lapses in prosecuting some offenses, the Uniform Code of Military Justice provides a sufficient domestic mechanism for trying any members of the U.S. armed forces suspected of alleged war crimes to avoid having any American soldier tried under ICC jurisdiction. Furthermore, virtually every person put on trial before the ICC since its founding has been a high-level military or political figure, not individual soldiers.

Despite this, ultra-conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) introduced an amendment called the American Service-Members’ Protection Act prohibiting the United States from cooperating in any way with the ICC and its prosecution of individuals responsible for serious crimes against humanity, such as those responsible for the genocide in Darfur. In addition, this vindictive law also restricts U.S. foreign aid to countries that support the ICC.

According to Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch, “The states that have ratified this treaty are trying to strengthen the rule of law,” but that the United States was “trying to punish them for that.”

Similarly, William R. Pace, executive director of the Institute for Global Policy and convener of the global Coalition for the International Criminal Court, noted how “This Congressional action is part of a multi-pronged effort of the US government to undermine international justice, international law and international peacekeeping.”

Much to the shock and dismay of many of her constituents, Clinton voted in favor of that Republican-sponsored amendment, which was immediately signed into law by President George W. Bush.

Even more disturbingly, this resolution Clinton helped become law also authorizes the president of the United States “to use all means necessary and appropriate to free members of United States military and certain other allied persons if they are detained or imprisoned by an international criminal court.” Given that this presumably includes military force, the bill was quickly dubbed the “Hague Invasion Act.”

Not surprisingly, there was widespread international criticism of the bill, particularly in The Netherlands, where the foreign minister issued a formal protest and the Dutch parliament passed a unanimous resolution raising concerns about the authorization of the use of force, an action which would presumably involve armed confrontation with Dutch soldiers and police guarding the court complex. In addition to violating the UN Charter, such an attack would run counter to the NATO Treaty, to which both the United States and the Netherlands are also party.

Apparently, however, Clinton — who has championed U.S. military intervention in over a dozen countries as a senator and Secretary of State and has spoken at right-wing rallies outside the United Nations protesting the world body — has no problem with that.

Her position on the ICC places her well to the right of President Barack Obama, who supports the court, and closer to that of the Republican contenders for president. Ironically, it was President Bill Clinton who initially signed the Rome Statute establishing the court, yet another reminder that as president, Hillary Clinton would likely pursue an even more hawkish foreign policy than did her husband.

It’s unclear why Clinton has so little respect for international law. Some claim it is because she feels a need to look tough in the face of possible Republican opponents who are even further to the right. More likely, however, it could be related to her advocacy of establishing closer U.S. military cooperation with a number of foreign leaders accused of war crimes who might conceivably find themselves under ICC indictment.

Whatever the motivation, should Clinton get the Democratic presidential nomination, supporters of international humanitarian law will not be left which much of a choice in the November election.

The U.S. and the Rise of ISIS

The rise of ISIS (also known as Daesh, ISIL, or the “Islamic State”) is a direct consequence of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. While there are a number of other contributing factors as well, that fateful decision is paramount.

Had Congress not authorized President George W. Bush the authority to illegally invade a country on the far side of the world that was no threat to us, and to fund the occupation and bloody counter-insurgency war that followed, the reign of terror ISIS has imposed upon large swathes of Syria and Iraq and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, the Sinai, San Bernardino and elsewhere would never have happened.

Among the many scholars, diplomats, and political figures who warned of such consequences was a then-Illinois state senator named Barack Obama, who noted that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would “only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda” and other like-minded extremists.

It is ironic, then, that most of those who went ahead and supported the invasion of Iraq anyway are now trying to blame him for the rise of ISIS. These include Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, who was among the minority of Congressional Democrats to vote for war authorization. In an August 2014 interview in The Atlantic, she claimed that Obama’s refusal to get the United States more heavily involved in the Syrian civil war “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”

There are serious questions as to whether providing additional military support to some of the motley and disorganized local Syrian militias labeled “moderates” by Washington could have done much to prevent the takeover of parts of Syria by ISIS. It is a powerful organized force led by experienced veterans of the former Iraqi Army under Saddam Hussein and flush with advanced American weaponry captured from the new U.S.-organized army.

In addition to the military leadership, the political leadership of ISIS is also primarily Iraqi, many of whom were radicalized by internment and torture in U.S.-operated prisons. These include the ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a one-time Sufi-turned-Salafist extremist. As the New York Times observed, “At every turn, Mr. Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’ involvement in Iraq — most of the political changes that fueled his fight, or led to his promotion, were born directly from some American action.”

Recent research by an Oxford scholar based on interviews with ISIS prisoners in Iraq noted how the younger recruits were drawn not by religious zealotry but by bitterness over how they and their families had suffered under U.S. occupation and the corrupt and repressive US-backed government in Baghdad.

Under U.S. occupation, Iraq’s two major bastions of secular nationalism — the armed forces and the civil service — were effectively abolished, only to be replaced by partisans of sectarian Shia parties and factions, some of which were closely allied to Iran. Sunni extremists, believing Iraqi Shias had betrayed their country to Persians and Westerners, began targeting Shia civilian neighborhoods with terrorist attacks. The Iraqi regime and allied militia then began systematically kidnapping and murdering thousands of Sunni men. The so-called “sectarian” conflict that emerged 10 years ago, then, was not simply a continuation of a centuries-old internecine struggle — indeed, mixed neighborhoods, shared mosques, and intermarriage was widespread prior to the U.S. invasion. It was instead a direct consequence of U.S. policies.

Despite this, recognizing that the emergence of al-Qaeda-related extremists among the dozens of resistance groups fighting the sectarian Shia government and U.S. forces were actually a bigger threat, Sunni tribesmen and other leaders in northern and western Iraq agreed in late 2006 to ally with the United States and the Baghdad regime in return for better incorporating Sunnis into the government and armed forces. This led to a temporary lull in the fighting, which various politicians and pundits have falsely attributed to the U.S. troop surge that followed.

However, the Maliki regime in Baghdad did not come through with its end of the agreement. Indeed, discrimination and repression increased. Nonviolent protesters were gunned down. Dissident journalists were targeted for imprisonment and assassination. There was widespread torture. Thousands of Iraqis were detained for years without trial. Sunnis and their communities faced rampant discrimination and the Maliki regime became recognized by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt governments in the world.

As a result, when ISIS emerged as the latest manifestation of al-Qaeda-style extremists two years ago, the Sunni population — despite their relatively secular outlook and strong opposition to such ideologies and tactics — found them to be the lesser evil and did not resist their takeover. Their advance was made easier by the failure of corrupt and inept Iraqi army to fight. As the U.S. learned in South Vietnam, no matter how well you train a foreign army and how many arms you provide them, they will only be successful if they believe their regime is worth fighting and dying for.

Meanwhile, in Syria, the taking up of arms by anti-regime forces in early 2012, the collapse of the nonviolent pro-democracy struggle, and the horrific bombing of urban neighborhoods and other acts of repression by the Syrian regime, gave ISIS — which has never recognized the artificial colonial-era boundaries between Arab states — an opening to take over major areas of Syria as well, resulting in foreign intervention and ISIS retaliation. The bombing of ISIS targets by Russia resulted in the downing of a Russian airliner in October. Attacks against ISIS by Lebanese Shia militia inspired the bombing of a Shia neighborhood in Beirut in November. And French airstrikes against ISIS led to the Paris massacres soon thereafter.

The San Bernardino massacre is indicative that such ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks can come to America’s shores as well.

There are no clear answers as to how to best respond to the threat from ISIS. There should be no question, however, as to U.S. responsibility in giving rise to this dangerous violent cult.

Why Netanyahu Needs Holocaust Revisionism and Israeli-Palestinian Violence

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s October 20 speech claiming that Hitler had not planned to exterminate Jews until a prominent Palestinian cleric pressured him to do so, while outrageous, is consistent with the longstanding narrative of the right-wing government and its U.S. supporters.

As everyone from the German government to leading Israeli historians have noted, the charge that Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini was responsible for the Holocaust is ludicrous. Not only is there no record of such an exchange between the two, the meeting took place in late November 1941, four months after the “Final Solution” had been formally authorized. By that time, nearly one million Jews–primarily from Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Serbia, and Russia–had already been murdered.

Netanyahu’s goal in making such extremist remarks, in the immediate term, was to validate his insistence that the recent attacks on Israeli civilians by Palestinians stemmed not from retaliation for the larger number of killings of Palestinian civilians by Israelis, as leading Israeli security analysts have noted, nor from the frustrations over nearly 50 years of Israeli occupation, colonization, and repression. To the Israeli leader, the attacks are simply a result of a centuries-old hatred of the Jews.

Regardless of the motivation, the stabbings and shootings of this past month of eight Israelis–including both settlers in the occupied West Bank and within Israel itself–is certainly horrific and can never be justified.

However, during this same period, 57 Palestinians, including 13 children and a pregnant woman, have been killed by Israeli police, soldiers, or vigilantes. Some of the Palestinians killed were engaged in stabbings or stabbing attempts, though in a number of cases eyewitnesses insisted otherwise. In one incident, a man engaging in suspicious behavior killed by Israeli police was labeled a “terrorist,” but the government immediately dropped the label as soon as they discovered he was actually an Israeli Jew.

While other Palestinians were shot dead while engaging in violent protests, the majority of those killed appear to have not been involved in any violent or threatening activities. Among them was physician, Hebron community leader, and human rights activist Hesham Azzeh, an advocate of nonviolent resistance who had worked with both Israeli and international peace groups.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, following the shooting of an HRW investigator by Israeli occupation forces, noted “indiscriminate or deliberate firing on observers and demonstrators who pose no imminent threat violates the international standards that bind Israeli security forces”

Meanwhile, in the United States, Hillary Clinton and members of Congress from both parties have gone on record condemning the killing of Israeli civilians by Palestinians, but not the larger number of Palestinian civilians by Israelis.

Leading Democrats on Capitol Hill have joined their Republican colleagues in demanding that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prevent the ongoing attacks against Israelis, despite the fact that the vast majority of them have been committed by Palestinians living in areas under exclusive Israeli control. Indeed, Israeli intelligence has noted that not only is there no evidence suggesting that President Abbas is inciting such attacks, but that he has directed his security forces to try to prevent any attacks from within territory under their jurisdiction.

The larger motivation behind Netanyahu’s ahistorical claims about the Holocaust appears to be part of his long-term strategy of portraying the Palestinian nationalist movement as little more than an effort by irrational fanatics to exterminate the Jews. This is why the rightist prime minister insists he cannot make peace. Indeed, in a speech on Monday regarding the West Bank, he reiterated his insistence that “we need to control all of the territory for the foreseeable future.”

Meanwhile, President Abbas, the recognized Palestinian government, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the ruling Fatah party all remain on record accepting Israel’s right to exist with strict security guarantees on 78% of historic Palestine, but simply demanding an end of the occupation and colonization of the remaining 22% seized by Israel in the 1967 war.

It is this kind of moderation which makes it difficult for Israel to continue its refusal to make the necessary compromises for peace. This is why Netanyahu and his American supporters need to blame the violence exclusively on those under occupation, convince the public that Arabs and Muslims simply want the Jews annihilated, and frighten Israelis into rejecting Palestinian offers for peace.

Bipartisan Attacks Against Anti-occupation Divestment Campaigns

In April, the student senate at Earlham College, a Quaker liberal arts institution in Indiana, approved a resolution by consensus recommending the college endowment divest from three U.S. companies (Motorola, Hewlett Packard and Caterpillar) which are directly supporting the Israeli occupation in violation of international law. The resolution (thus far ignored by the college’s board of trustees) follows decisions by a number of Quaker-affiliated organizations — as well as the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, and other nonprofit groups — to divest from these companies.

The response was swift. Within weeks, the Indiana state legislature passed a bipartisan resolution condemning the boycott/divest/sanctions campaign as “anti-Jewish,” accusing it of “promoting a climate of hatred, intimidation, intolerance, and violence against Jews.” Despite the absurdity of the notion that the consensus of an elected body of students at a college rooted in a Christian pacifist tradition would promote “violence against Jews” or anybody else, the resolution received near-unanimous support from both Republicans and Democrats.

A similar resolution passed in the Tennessee legislature as well, also with virtually unanimous bipartisan support.

The tactic of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) has been used for years to pressure U.S. companies to stop illegally profiting from foreign occupations, particularly in cases where the United States has blocked the United Nations from enforcing its resolutions calling for withdrawal of occupation forces in accordance with the U.N. Charter. Boycott and divestment campaigns in previous decades targeted companies supporting South Africa’s occupation of Namibia and Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor. A campaign is currently underway, particularly strong in Europe, in support of BDS against the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara.

In the case of the Israeli occupation, however, supporters of the Israeli occupation and the right-wing Israeli government have mounted a strong counter-attack.

For example, Hillary Clinton — the front runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination — has declared that the BDS movement was working to “malign and undermine Israel and the Jewish people.” Similarly, the Democratic-controlled State Assembly in California passed a non-binding resolution declaring BDS advocacy “anti-Semitic activities” which should “not be tolerated” on state university campuses.

For decades, student activism in solidarity with oppressed peoples in the Global South has attracted a variety of supporters, ranging from Christian pacifists to proponents of armed revolution, and from liberal Democrats to Marxist-Leninists. Similarly, while the BDS movement has attracted some hardline pro-Palestinian elements which could reasonably be considered anti-Israel (and, in a few cases, even anti-Semitic), the vast majority are sincere and principled supporters of human rights and international law.

This tendency by Democratic politicians to malign BDS supporters as the movement’s most extreme elements is politically damaging for the party, which depends heavily on young progressive student volunteers. For example, Obama’s very narrow victory in Indiana in the 2008 election was made possible in part by the hundreds of students from Earlham and other colleges in the state going door-to-door. These statements and resolutions are giving a signal that supporters of BDS and other campaigns for corporate responsibility are no longer welcome in the party.

A number of prominent Democratic politicians first became politically engaged while in college, working on divestment campaigns targeting apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. Their contemporaries will be much less inclined to become involved with a party which attacks them and unfairly portrays their human rights activism as a form of bigotry. As a result, the Democrats are in jeopardy of losing many of the very kind of idealistic young people with strong organizing skills the party needs.

The anti-BDS fervor has gone beyond statements and nonbinding resolutions. This spring, the Illinois legislature passed a unanimous measure sponsored by Democratic leaders which requires divesting state pension funds from companies that invest in Iran or Sudan, but ironically also calls for divesting from companies that boycott Israel, Israeli settlements, or otherwise use economic means to oppose the occupation.

As a result, state pension fund shares in any publicly-traded company — even one that invests in Israel — now have to be sold if they had a policy of boycotting the illegal settlements in the occupied territories. These would include socially-conscious companies like Ben & Jerry’s, which manufactures and sells its ice cream in Israel but refuses to buy products used in their manufacturing if produced in Israeli settlements.

Support for the settlements through discouraging BDS has also been included in federal legislation. A clause in the “fast track” bill to help insure passage of the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership which became law in June forces the Obama administration to pressure potential U.S. trading partners to no longer boycott products made in illegal settlements or to discourage their companies from supporting the Israeli occupation.

There appears, then, to be a growing acceptance by politicians of both parties of the neoconservative view that the enforcement of international humanitarian law — such as provisions that bar companies from supporting illegal occupations — should be opposed (at least as it applies to the United States and its allies) and that those who support the universal applications of such principles should be attacked, marginalized and punished, such as by labeling proponents as anti-Semitic or by hurting their businesses.

This bipartisan willingness to defame and punish those advocating socially-responsible investment policies also may be based upon the belief that defending corporate profits for companies like Motorola, Hewlett Packard, and Caterpillar is a higher priority than defending human rights. It may be only a matter of time before groups like Students for a Free Tibet — which calls for boycotts and related activities targeting the Beijing government and U.S. companies that support that occupation of Tibet — will be labeled as anti-Chinese racists. One can imagine other scenarios in which those who advocate divestment and similar actions against carbon polluters, arms manufacturers, and others will also be targeted by politicians.

Some have cautioned against interpreting such statements and legislation too broadly, arguing that politicians who support anti-BDS measures do so only because it impacts Israel and that they are being forced by some kind of rich cabal of Jews behind the scenes. Such rationalizations, however, really are anti-Semitic. No one has ever lost an election for refusing to attack advocates of socially-responsible investment policies.

This is why even those who do not necessarily support the BDS campaign against Israel or the Israeli occupation should oppose such efforts. At root, these anti-BDS efforts are about defending corporate profits, regardless of the moral and legal implications.

Bipartisan Assault on Middle East Peace

Earlier this month, the House of Representatives passed a dangerous piece of legislation (H.R. 4133) which would undermine the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, weaken Israeli moderates and peace advocates, undercut international law, further militarize the Middle East, and make Israel ever more dependent on the United States.

The margin was an overwhelming 411-2, with eight abstentions.

House minority leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Howard Berman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, joined House Majority leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) in co-sponsoring the bill, an indication of how closely the Democratic Party leadership aligns with the most right-wing Republicans when it comes to U.S. Middle East policy.

Indeed, the way the Democratic Party is now allied with the Republican Right could not be more obvious than the fact that the resolution passed on a “suspension of the rules,” a legislative procedure reserved for legislation on non-controversial topics requiring little debate and allowing for a quick vote.

Exempting Israel

A number of provisions in the bill are highly disturbing to those who support Middle East peace, justice for Palestine, and genuine security for Israel.

The “Findings” of the bill, rather than praising the growth of democratic movements in the Arab world, bemoans “the fall of some regimes long considered to be stabilizing forces,” indicative of how little either party cares for democracy in the Middle East. Similarly, rather than praise the grassroots pro-democracy movements and their strategic nonviolent action, the bill blames Iran for “seeking to exploit the dramatic political transition underway in the region to undermine governments traditionally aligned with the United States.”

United in the belief that U.S. allies should somehow be exempt from accountability under international law, the bill calls on the United States to veto any “one-sided” resolutions at the United Nations Security Council directed at Israel, even those that are reasonably critical of Israel’s ongoing violations of international humanitarian law and previous U.N. security Council resolutions, or for possible future crimes against humanity and related war crimes, such as those documented by reputable human rights groups during Israel’s recent military assaults on Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

As an indication of how the Democratic Party is now even further to the right than former President George H.W. Bush, the bill also calls for additional unconditional loan guarantees to Israel, which the former Republican president tried to make conditional on a freeze in construction of Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied territories.

Although there has never been any real debate regarding the commitment of the United States to Israel’s security, this resolution takes the unprecedented step of insisting that that commitment be within the context of defending Israel as an explicitly “Jewish state.” The Israeli government certainly has the right to identify itself as a Jewish state or anything else. But this clause not only demonstrates a lack of concern about the security interests of the more than 20 percent of Israelis who are not Jewish and the millions of Palestinians who are effectively under Israeli military control. This resolution appears to be making an unprecedented commitment by the United States to guarantee the religious, ethnic, or cultural identity of a foreign country.

Similarly, although the Palestine Authority (PA) and virtually every other Arab government has pledged to make peace with Israel, including strict security guarantees, in return for an Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab territory, the bill insists that the United States not just “encourage Israel’s neighbors to recognize Israel’s right to exist,” but its “right to exist as a Jewish state.” The PA and other Arab states — noting that no peace treaty in history has ever required recognition by one state of the other’s religious, ethnic, or cultural identity — have therefore rejected such a prerequisite. By including this new provision for Arab-Israeli peace in this resolution, which was not required of Egypt and Jordan in their peace treaties with Israel, it appears to be designed to sabotage any possible additional peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Arms Up

With this bill, Congress has made peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors all the more difficult. It has also created a situation requiring increased U.S.-Israeli military cooperation and increased profits for U.S. arms manufacturers. Indeed, the bill calls for dramatically expanded U.S. arms aid and arms sales to Israel.

For example, instead of simply providing Israel with enough deterrent capability to ward off any potential combination of threats, the legislation calls on the United States to ensure that Israel maintains a “qualitative military edge,” presumably in order to have such a dominating military presence that the right-wing government can maintain its ability to invade, occupy, and subjugate its neighbors — in effect, to keep Israel in a constant state of war and increasingly dependent on the United States. To make sure President Obama takes this clause seriously, the bill requires the White House to put together a report every year detailing how the United States is ensuring that Israel’s superiority is being maintained. No such requirement is made in regard to any other country.

The legislation calls for dramatically increasing U.S. military aid to Israel over this year’s record of $3.1 billion in order to ensure Israel right of self-defense. The bill radically redefines “defense” to include military equipment that has generally been seen as offensive in nature, such as tanker aircraft, which are only necessary for offensive military operations like bombing raids and troop deployments in far-off countries such as Iran.

U.S. military aid to Israel is already higher than the foreign aid programs to all of sub-Saharan Africa combined. With overall foreign aid already being reduced, this bill will translate into even deeper cuts in international assistance programs that aid the poor — such as vaccinations and other disease prevention, clean water initiatives, food aid, sustainable development projects, and other programs that save countless lives.

Some “progressive” organizations like MoveOn and Democracy for America have endorsed and are raising money to support a number of the right-wing Democrats who co-sponsored and voted for this extraordinary dangerous legislation. Unlike previous periods, when liberal groups stood up against both Republicans and Democrats who supported repressive right-wing governments and increased militarization in Central America and Southeast Asia, liberal groups today have no problem working to re-elect Democratic hawks who demonstrate a similar hostility to human rights, international law, and demilitarization in the Middle East.

Without such pressure from the left, the Democrats have little incentive to change their right-wing foreign policy.

Mali’s Struggle: Not Simply of Their Own Making

In examining the political crises which have gripped Mali in recent months, it is important not to fall into simplistic analyses of dysfunctional or “failed” African states. Indeed, the Malian people have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to mobilize civil society and build stable democratic governance despite a history of enormous poverty, ethnic divisions, and foreign intervention.

In 1991, more than two decades prior to similar pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Malians engaged in a massive nonviolent resistance campaign that brought down the dictatorship of Mousa Traoré. A broad mobilization of trade unionists, peasants, students, teachers, and others — supported by griots (traditional singing storytellers) who would sing allegorical songs regarding historical freedom struggles — created a mass movement throughout the country. Despite the absence of Facebook or the Internet, virtually no international media coverage, and the massacre of hundreds of peaceful protesters, this popular civil insurrection succeeded not only in ousting a repressive and corrupt regime, but ushered in more than two decades of democratic rule.

Despite corruption, poverty, and a weak infrastructure, Mali was widely considered to be the most stable and democratic country in West Africa. In order to educate and promote the rights and duties of its citizens, the government implemented a program called the “Decentralization Mission” in 1993 to encourage popular participation in local and regional elections. Independent radio stations and newspapers emerged and the country experienced lively and open political debate.

The events surrounding the nonviolent revolution of 1991 were regularly commemorated, with the anniversary of the March 26 massacre a national holiday. A series of monuments in the capital of Bamako also commemorate the pro-democracy struggle.

In the years since the 1991 revolution, even contentious politics was expressed largely nonviolently. There were several periods of student-led protests in the 1990s against high unemployment and other negative effects of structural adjustment programs imposed by international financial institutions, contributing to the fall of one government through a no confidence vote in parliament. The tradition of nonviolent resistance against authoritarianism came to the fore in 2001 when a proposed constitutional referendum put forward by President Alpha Oumar Konaré was called off after a series of protests by those fearing it would have threatened the country’s independent judiciary and effectively make the president immune to prosecution. Additional protests against neo-liberal economic policies erupted in 2005. Hundreds peacefully demonstrated against the 2006 visit by then-French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy in protest at his tough policies against immigrants. That same year, Mali hosted the World Social Forum, a mass gathering of thousands of activists from hundreds of civil society organizations.

A number of studies have demonstrated how dictatorships overthrown through largely nonviolent civil insurrections are far more likely to evolve into stable democracies than dictatorships ousted through armed revolution or foreign intervention. Mali appeared to be a prime example of this phenomenon.

Indeed, soon after the March Revolution of 1991, the Malian government negotiated a peace agreement with armed Tuareg rebels in which they agreed to end their rebellion in return for a degree of autonomy. In March 1996, there was a massive ceremonial burning of the rebels’ surrendered weapons in Bamako.

So, what led to the coup d’état and secessionist crisis?

Unlike the positive contagion from Tunisia’s nonviolent insurrection, neighboring Libya’s armed insurrection appears to have launched a far more negative trend. Indeed, a major reason for the African Union’s opposition to the NATO-led war in Libya was out of concern for the risk of spreading instability to neighboring Africa countries.

When last year’s initially nonviolent uprising in Libya against the Gaddafi regime turned to armed struggle, resulting in even greater government repression and thereby prompting NATO intervention, disparate armed groups — including Tuareg tribesmen — ended up liberating major stores of armaments. These vast caches of weapons were passed on to Tuaregs in Mali who, now having the means to effectively challenge the Malian government militarily, resumed their long-dormant rebellion under the leadership of National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Charging that the civilian government was not being tough enough against the rebels, U.S.-trained Army Captain Amadou Sanogo and other officers staged a coup on March 22 and called for U.S. intervention along the lines of Afghanistan and the “war on terror.”

Sanogo’s training in the United States is just one small part of a decade of U.S. training of armies in the Sahel, increasing the militarization of this impoverished region and the influence of armed forces relative to civilian leaders. Gregory Mann, writing in Foreign Policy, notes how “a decade of American investment in special forces training, co-operation between Sahalien armies and the United States and counter-terrorism programs of all sorts run by both the State Department and the Pentagon has, at best, failed to prevent a new disaster in the desert and, at worst, sowed its seeds.”

Rather than responding violently to the coup, thousands of Malians in Bamako and elsewhere took to the streets demanding a return to democracy, members of the deposed civilian cabinet went on a hunger strike, and many civil servants and others refused to cooperate with the military regime. Meanwhile, both western and African countries imposed sanctions against the illegitimate government.

Most problematically, however, Tuareg rebels, taking advantage of the political divisions in the capital, consolidated their hold on the northern part of the country by capturing its remaining towns and declaring an independent state. The MNLA’s victories also led various Islamist militias, including extremists allied with Al-Qaeda, to seize a number of towns and impose their rigid ideological agenda.

The combination of internal and external pressures led Sanago to agree to step down and allow for the restoration of a civilian government in early April. The deposed president, Amadou Toumani Touré, who had become increasingly unpopular and whose term was set to expire in a few months, had agreed to step aside in favor of National Assembly president Dioncounda Traoré. Despite formally handing over power on April 12, however, the junta continued to arrest opponents and still wields considerable influence. Scattered fighting between rival armed forces erupted in the capital last week. Meanwhile, extremist Islamic militias in the north, taking advantage of the country’s chaos, have reportedly been destroying historic shrines and other cultural landmarks they consider idolatrous in Timbuktu and other northern cities.

The question now is whether the Malians can build upon their rich history of democratic governance and nonviolent resistance to regain their country’s once admired stability and freedom or whether the recent tragic events, fomented in part by misguided western policies, will be too serious from which to easily recover. In any case, Mali serves as yet another reminder of both the power of strategic nonviolent action and the consequences of foreign powers seeking to impose military solutions to complex political problems.

Military Intervention in Syria Is a Bad Idea

Although the impulse to try to end the ongoing repression by the Syrian regime against its own people through foreign military intervention is understandable, it would be a very bad idea.

Empirical studies have repeatedly demonstrated that international military interventions in cases of severe repression actually exacerbate violence in the short term and can only reduce violence in the longer term if the intervention is impartial or neutral. Other studies demonstrate that foreign military interventions actually increase the duration of civil wars, making the conflicts longer and bloodier, and the regional consequences more serious, than if there were no intervention. In addition, military intervention would likely trigger a “gloves off” mentality that would dramatically escalate the violence on both sides.

Even putting aside the recent historical record, however, virtually anyone familiar with Syrian politics and history can recognize the fallacy of such foreign support for the armed struggle.

Many nonviolent protesters have tragically been killed, as will many more. However, proportionately a far greater number of armed resisters have been killed and will continue to be killed. The question is not whether thousands will continue to die but what is the best way for the Syrian people to overthrow the hated regime, end the violence and bring democracy and social justice.

Violence vs. Nonviolence

The vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians engaged in the ongoing resistance against the regime are nonviolent. Some support the simultaneous armed struggle; some don’t. However, there is little question that the regime fears their ability to neutralize the power of the state through the power of nonviolent resistance more than it does armed groups that are attacking state power where it is strongest — through the force of arms. This is why the regime has so consistently tried to provoke the pro-democracy forces into violence. It has also claimed that the opposition was composed of terrorists and armed thugs even during the first six months of the struggle when it was almost completely nonviolent, recognizing that the Syrian people are far more likely to support a regime challenged by an armed insurgency than through a largely nonviolent civil insurrection.

Supporting the armed resistance with foreign military power would demoralize and disempower those in the nonviolent resistance who are daily risking their lives for their freedom. In addition, history has shown that those who are quickest to take up arms are least likely to support democracy after the old regime is toppled. Indeed, countries whose dictatorships are overthrown by armed groups — with their vanguard mentality, martial values and strict military hierarchy — are far more likely to turn into new dictatorships, often accompanied by ongoing violence and factionalism, than dictatorships overthrown by primarily nonviolent methods.

Some proponents of Western intervention cite the “success” of Libya as a precedent for Syria. Not only are there still serious questions regarding the necessity of armed struggle and foreign intervention in that case, Libya hardly constitutes a good model of a democratic transformation. Unlike the peaceful and relatively orderly transition to democracy going on in neighboring Tunisia, where largely nonviolent actions toppled the hated Ben Ali dictatorship in January of last year, Libya is struggling with rival-armed militias fighting each other for the spoils when they aren’t tracking down and summarily executing suspected supporters of the old regime.

Even if one wants to count Libya as a “success” for foreign intervention, however, there are important differences between the two countries:

Although Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi during his final years had largely alienated virtually every segment of Libyan society, the Syrian regime still has a strong social base. A fairly large minority of Syrians — consisting of Alawites, Christians and other minority communities, Baath Party loyalists and government employees, and the crony capitalist class that the regime has nurtured — still back the regime. There are certainly dissidents within all of these sectors. But the regime will only solidify its support in the case of foreign intervention.

The Baath Party is organized in virtually every town and neighborhood. No such organization existed under Gaddafi. Unlike Iraq’s Baath Party, which Saddam Hussein ruled with an iron fist in a matter reminiscent of Stalin’s takeover of the Soviet Communist Party, the Baath Party is far more than President Assad. It has ruled Syria for nearly 50 years. And with an ideology rooted in Arab nationalism, socialism and anti-imperialism, it could mobilize its hundreds of thousands of members to resist the foreign invaders. Hundreds have quit the party in protest of the killings of nonviolent protesters, but few defections could be expected if foreigners suddenly attacked the country.

The United States and Syria

The history of U.S. relations with Syria makes the United States a particularly inappropriate advocate for military intervention.

On the one hand, the Syrian regime has at times supported U.S. foreign policy goals in the region, such as suppressing Palestinian and leftist forces in Lebanon in the mid-to-late 1970s, contributing troops to the U.S.-led “Desert Shield” operation in 1990 following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, supporting a coup against a pro-Saddam Lebanese prime minister that same year, providing intelligence and other support against al-Qaeda and other extremists, supporting tough anti-Iraq resolutions while on the UN Security Council, and becoming a destination for “extraordinary rendition” of suspected Islamist radicals captured by the United States.

Overall, however, the U.S.-Syrian relationship has been marked by enormous hostility. The United States has backed the right-wing Israeli government in its illegal occupation and colonization of southwestern Syria, which Israel invaded in June of 1967, despite offers by the Syrian government to recognize Israel and provide security guarantees in return for a full Israeli withdrawal. Indeed, in 2007, the United States effectively blocked Israel from resuming negotiations with Syria.

U.S. Navy jets repeatedly attacked Syrian positions in Lebanon during 1983-84 and U.S. army commandoes attacked a border village in eastern Syria in 2008, killing a number of civilians. The United States imposed draconian sanctions on the country in 2003, refusing to lift them until Syria unilaterally halted development of certain kinds of weapons systems already possessed by such U.S. allies as Israel, Egypt and Turkey. A nearly unanimous bipartisan bill, which passed Congress that same year, made the ludicrous assertion that Syria represented a threat to the national security interests of the United States and that Syria would be “held accountable” for what it referred to as “hostile actions” against Americans. Passage of this bill led the late Senator Robert Byrd to warn that Congress was building a case for military action against Syria.

With this kind of history, U.S. military intervention would simply play into the hands of the regime in Damascus, which has decades of experience manipulating the Syrian people’s strong sense of nationalism to its benefit. The regime can point out that the United States is the world’s primary military supplier to the world’s remaining dictatorships, including the repressive monarchy in Bahrain, which brutally suppressed an overwhelmingly nonviolent pro-democracy struggle last year with few objections from Washington. It would not be difficult for Assad and other Syrian leaders to assert that the United States doesn’t care about democracy in Syria any more than it does about democracy elsewhere in the Middle East but is using the “promotion of democracy” as an excuse to overthrow a government that happens to oppose Washington’s hegemonic designs on the region.

The Power of Nonviolent Action

Recent history has shown that armed struggles are far less likely to be successful than nonviolent struggles, even against dictatorships, since it makes defections by security forces and government officials less likely, reduces the number of active participants in the movement, alienates potential supporters, and gives the regime the excuse to crack down even harder by portraying the opposition as “terrorists.” Indeed, empirical studies note that primarily nonviolent movements against dictatorships are more than twice as likely to succeed as armed struggles. It just doesn’t make sense for the United States or other foreign powers to throw their support to the deadlier and less effective wing of the anti-regime resistance.

The best hope for Syria is that continued protests, strikes and other forms of nonviolent resistance, combined with targeted international sanctions, will cause enough disruption that powerful economic interests and other key sectors currently allied with the Alawite-led government would force the government to negotiate with the opposition for a transfer of power to a democratic majority. Indeed, this is the scenario that eventually forced an end to another notorious minority regime, that of South Africa.

Talk of military intervention can only benefit the regime and weaken the force that is far more likely to end the tragic violence and bring forth a new democratic Syria: that of civil society and the power of nonviolent action.

Democracy Imperiled in the Maldives

Well before the launch of the Arab Spring, the people of the Maldives, a Muslim nation located on a tropical archipelago in the Indian Ocean, were engaged in widespread nonviolent resistance against the 30-year reign of the corrupt and autocratic president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. The growing civil insurrection forced the dictator to finally allow for free elections in October 2008, which he lost.

This triumph for democracy is now threatened as a result of a coup last month led by allies of the former dictator and hardline Islamists.

When the democratic opposition leader and former political prisoner Mohamed Nasheed assumed the presidency slightly over three years ago, he was faced with the difficult task of repairing the country’s damaged social fabric from decades of misrule. While luxury resorts had mushroomed on many of the Maldives’ remote islands, most of the population suffered in poverty. Indeed, Gayoom’s legacy is one of shattered communities, destitution, crime and widespread drug abuse.

Despite their best efforts, Nasheed and his democratic allies were hampered by a court system still dominated by corrupt judges handpicked by the former dictator as well as violent protests by Islamists angered at the democratic government’s moderate social policies. Meanwhile, despite struggles at home, Nasheed took global leadership in pushing for concrete international action on climate change, through which rising sea levels threaten his nation’s very existence.

Nasheed’s increasingly bold and popular efforts against the vestiges of the Gayoom dictatorship, however, threatened powerful interests. On February 7, police and other security forces with links to the old regime, in alliance with Vice-President Mohammed Waheed, forced President Nasheed to sign a letter of resignation. Subsequent evidence leaves little doubt that Nasheed was accurate in describing it as a coup d’etat.

Much to the dismay of the pro-democracy forces, the U.S. State Department initially recognized the sworn-in vice president as representing the legitimate government, though the Obama administration soon backed away from its recognition in the wake of a public outcry, particularly as evidence of the actual circumstances of Nasheed’s departure became apparent.

Over the past month, pro-democracy demonstrators have once again taken to the streets as they had under Gayoom’s rule. Once again, they are being met with brutal repression. In the face of growing protests, the junta has invited Nasheed and his party to join the new government as a junior partner in a coalition dominated by Waheed and supporters of the former dictatorship.

The United States has been pressuring the ousted president to accept the junta’s offer. However, Nasheed — confident that the majority of Maldivians support democracy and will return him to office — has instead called for early elections as the only means of stabilizing the country.

The United States and much of the international community has understandably been focused on the repression and increasingly violent conflict in Syria. However, attention also needs to be given to the Muslim people of this Asian nation, whose nonviolent struggle for freedom foreshadowed the Arab Spring and whose democratic emergence is now in serious jeopardy.

Popular unarmed civil insurrections have toppled scores of dictatorships over the past three decades, from the Philippines to Poland, from Chile to Serbia, from Mali to the Maldives, and more recently in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. These successes have demonstrated that democracy has the best chance of success if the leadership and initiative comes from within, not through ‘regime change’ from the outside. However, while the United States and other major powers which espouse democracy don’t have the power to launch such pro-democracy revolutions, the least they can do is avoid undermining them.

Rather than push Nasheed and his democratically-elected party to serve under an illegitimate regime, the United States must take the lead in imposing tough and carefully calibrated international sanctions against the junta until they agree to hold free and fair internationally-monitored elections. Unlike in Libya and increasingly so in Syria, the Maldivians have consciously rejected the use of arms in their struggle against dictatorship and corruption, and, through Nasheed’s forty months in office, demonstrated their enthusiasm for democratic values. This commitment to political rights and to the power of nonviolent action deserves the world’s support.


Obama’s Mideast Speech: Two Steps Back, One Step Forward

Although President Barack Obama’s May 19 address on U.S. Middle East policy had a number of positive elements, overall it was a major disappointment. His speech served as yet another reminder that his administration’s approach to the region differs in several important ways from that of his immediate predecessor, but he failed to consistently assert principled U.S. support for human rights, democracy, or international law.

Obama was most eloquent in noting how popular nonviolent struggles were the driving agent of change in the region, and how this had in many ways made al-Qaeda decreasingly relevant even before the killing of Osama bin Laden earlier this month. Correctly recognizing that, through the use of nonviolent action, “the people of the region have achieved more change in six months than terrorists have accomplished in decades,” the president also observed, unlike the problematic efforts of “democracy promotion” in Iraq, “It is not America that put people into the streets of Tunis and Cairo — it was the people themselves who launched these movements, and must determine their outcome.”

Also to his credit, Obama did not just talk about free elections as the sole determinant of democracy, but the right of a free press, free assembly, and the right to information. Similarly, it is positive that he committed the United States to “build on our efforts to broaden our engagement beyond elites, so that we reach the people who will shape the future — particularly young people.”

In doing so, however, he will face the widespread opposition of these young people and other democratic forces to continued U.S. arms transfers and security assistance to corrupt and repressive regimes, the pursuit of a neo-liberal economic agenda that has exacerbated inequality in their countries, and ongoing U.S. support for the continued Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestinian land.

Bahrain and Syria

In his most forceful comments on the situation in Bahrain to date, Obama addressed concerns about the worsening repression in that island kingdom. However, he did not push for democratic change in Bahrain, a U.S. ally, nearly as much as he did regarding Syria, a longtime U.S. adversary. This unbalanced emphasis was particularly striking given that — as a percentage of the population — even more people have been killed and jailed in the former. For example, while calling for greater freedom for Bahrainis, Obama did not call on King Hamad to “lead that transition or get out of the way” as he did with Syrian President Assad. The United States has enormous leverage with Bahrain through its contributions to the government’s coffers in rent for military bases, as well as through arms sales and related security assistance that has been used to oppress pro-democracy demonstrators. But Obama has refused to impose sanctions on Bahrain as he did on Syria.

Another double standard apparent in the president’s speech was, while complaining that Iran has allegedly “tried to take advantage of the turmoil” in Bahrain, Obama refused to endorse international demands that U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates withdraw the troops they sent into that island kingdom to brutally repress the overwhelmingly nonviolent freedom struggle.

Obama’s claim that, in Iraq, “we see the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy” is rather incredible given the ongoing sectarianism and political repression, including the killing and jailing of pro-democracy activists — including leading journalists and intellectuals — and the destruction of offices of civil society groups calling for greater freedom and transparency in the U.S.-backed regime.

It is gratifying to hear a president say that the United States “will oppose an attempt by any group to restrict the rights of others, and to hold power through coercion — not consent.” However, as long as the United States continues to provide allied regimes with billions of dollars worth of security assistance to make that coercion possible, there remain serious questions regarding how seriously Obama is willing to follow through on that commitment.

In addition, his claim that the United States “will not tolerate aggression across borders” continues to be somewhat selective given its ongoing support for the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara and support for Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinian territories. And although Obama opposed the invasion of Iraq, he has yet to withdraw U.S. forces from that country whose borders the United States crossed in what is recognized by most authorities of international law as an illegal act of aggression.


The good news is that Obama stressed that the Israeli occupation should end and an independent Palestinian state should be established, with its boundaries based on the internationally recognized pre-June 1967 borders. Though this has been the international consensus for years, right-wing Republicans and other allies of Israel’s rightist government have attacked Obama for his position.

However, Obama did not call for a complete withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from occupied Palestinian territory. The unspecified variations from the pre-1967 borders, Obama insisted, should be made through “mutually agreed-upon” land swaps. Unfortunately, despite Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas agreeing to such reciprocal territorial swaps — even though it would leave the Palestinian state with a bare 22 percent of Palestine — Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has refused to consider trading any land within Israel while simultaneously insisting on annexing large swathes of occupied Palestinian territory. How such “mutually agreed-upon” swaps will take place without the United States exerting enormous leverage — such as withholding some of the annual $3 billion in unconditional aid provided annually, which Obama has already ruled out — is hard to imagine.

The failure of Netanyahu to compromise has forced the Palestinian Authority to consider a unilateral declaration of independence in September within the areas of Palestine recognized by the United States as under foreign belligerent occupation — the 22 percent of Palestine consisting of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip. However, in his speech, Obama arrogantly dismissed such an exercise of the Palestinians’ moral and legal right to self-determination as “symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations.” His line that “a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River” came across as particularly bizarre since this is exactly where Palestinians had lived for centuries, not the neighboring Arab countries where millions of refugees now live.

Similarly, despite ongoing violations of a series of UN Security Council resolutions, a landmark advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, and basic international humanitarian law by the government of Israel, Obama vowed “we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums.”

It was positive that Obama specified that Palestinian borders must be with “Israel, Jordan and Egypt.” This appears to be an open challenge to Israeli efforts to control the occupied Jordan Valley (thereby having Israel completely surround a proposed Palestinian mini-state and closing off their access to its eastern neighbor) and — since the West Bank does not border Egypt — to prevent the Gaza Strip from joining the new Palestinian republic.

It seemed particularly odd that Obama refused to point out areas of Israeli intransigence and violations of international legal norms but made a point of chastising the Palestinians for their “efforts to delegitimize Israel” and insisting “Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.” Although such criticism of such actions are certainly reasonable in themselves, he seemed to ignore the fact that the Palestine Authority, their president and prime minister, the ruling Fatah party, and the Palestine Liberation Organization have repeatedly reiterated their recognition of Israel’s right to exist as an independent viable state in peace and security, which is more than the current Israeli government has ever done in regard to Palestine.

Also disturbing is Obama’s insistence that the borders of the new Palestinian state be agreed on prior to negotiations over the status of East Jerusalem, the nominal Palestinian capital and the base of leading Palestinian universities, businesses, and cultural and religious landmarks. Any idea that the Palestinians will accept an independent mini-state without East Jerusalem as its capital is frankly naïve.

Most disturbingly, Obama raised concern about whether the Israeli government should even negotiate with the recently announced national unity government formed between the two largest Palestinian parties, Fatah and Hamas, on the grounds of Hamas’ ongoing refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Obama failed to note that the current Israeli government includes parties that refuse to recognize Palestine’s right to exist or raise concerns about whether the Palestinians should negotiate with an Israeli government that included such parties. This blatant double standard raises serious questions regarding Obama’s commitment to being an honest broker in resolving the conflict.

Obama concluded his speech by declaring that “we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.” Unfortunately, for decades, the United States has refused to do this. And, although the Obama administration has taken small steps in that direction relative to previous administrations, it still has a long way to go before fulfilling such a promise.

The Killing of Bin Laden and the Threat of Al Qaeda

The killing of Al-Qaeda founder and leader Osama bin Laden is not likely to have a profound impact one way or the other in the struggle against the terrorist organization and its allied groupings. On the one hand, Al-Qaeda may face a potential leadership void and internal divisions. On the other hand, the organization has decentralized in the ten years since the United States and allied forces drove them from their sanctuaries in Afghanistan and terrorist cells operate independently from bin Laden’s leadership and a whole new generation of terrorists subscribing to the apocalyptic and genocidal ideology has sprung up as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The good news, however, is that Al-Qaeda and like-minded groups have been seriously weakened in recent months. Indeed, far more significant than bin Laden’s death has been the nonviolent pro-democracy insurrections that have been sweeping the Arab world in that they are empowering civil society, instilling hope, and creating models of governance that are much less likely to breed terrorists.

Bin Laden always insisted that only through subscribing to his apocalyptic reactionary ideology and genocidal methods could Muslim peoples overthrow oppressive and corrupt U.S.-backed Arab dictatorships. Indeed, his first attack against U.S. interests was a residential compound of U.S. soldiers training the repressive Saudi internal security forces back in 1995. However, bin Laden and his followers never came close to overthrowing any Arab regime. Most Arabs found his methods not only morally reprehensible, but recognized how he gave dictatorial governments an excuse to crack down even harder against all dissent. Instead, millions of Middle Easterners are recognizing — as did Filipinos, Poles, Chileans, Serbs and others before them — that strategic nonviolent action is far more powerful and effective. The masses calling for freedom, liberty, and social justice directly counter bin Laden’s medieval visions of a theocratic dictatorship to which very few Muslims aspire.

While the sense of triumphalism and celebration of bin Laden’s death is inappropriate, in many respects, the Obama administration handled the situation well. Any killing of a prominent leader by hostile forces could conceivably cause a backlash — and, ideally, it would have been better had he been captured and tried in an international tribunal — but the circumstances of his death will hopefully minimize any anti-American reaction.

Bin Laden was killed as part of a firefight as commandos assaulted his compound, not as a result of assassination by an anonymous drone launched in a control center thousands of miles away. Despite formal denials by both sides, there was clearly some cooperation with Pakistani authorities, so it was not a unilateral American operation. It appears that there were no civilian casualties. Bin Laden was buried in accordance with Muslim ritual, rather than having his body unceremoniously displayed in a propaganda show.

How this contrasts with the policies of Bush administration: If there was any logic to the madness of 9/11, it was the hope that the United States would overreact and launch massive ground invasions of Middle Eastern countries, like the Soviets did in Afghanistan a generation later. Bin Laden knew that the inevitable large-scale killings of civilians and blatant neo-imperialist agenda inherent in such ill-fated efforts would radicalize a whole new generation of extremists to bin Laden’s cult-like heresy in the name of Islam. Bush fell right into his trap, naively believing that a decentralized network of underground terrorist cells could be destroyed through high-altitude bombing, and sending U.S. forces into fighting bloody counter-insurgency wars in Islamic countries with a long tradition of resistance to foreign invaders.

To Obama’s credit, he recognized the folly of invading Iraq, correctly noting that unilaterally taking over a country that was no threat to us and had absolutely no operational ties to Al-Qaeda would be a major distraction from the fight against an organization that really was a threat. Ironically, however, most of his key appointments to relevant positions in his administrations were supporters of the illegal and unnecessary war: Joe Biden as vice president; Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State; Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense; Janet Napolitano as Secretary for Homeland Security; Richard Holbrooke as special advisor for Afghanistan and Pakistan; Dennis Ross as special advisor for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia; among others. His willingness to appoint people who clearly had difficulty distinguishing real threats from phantom threats raised serious questions regarding whether he really took the threat from Al-Qaeda seriously.

However, the final demise of Osama bin Laden appears to have come not through the indiscriminate use of force against entire nations, but through a well-planned precisely-targeted paramilitary operation based upon solid intelligence painstakingly gathered over many months.

Similarly, improved intelligence and interdiction, combined with breaking up the financial networks that supplied Al-Qaeda operatives, have done far more the prevent another 9/11-type attack than military operations.

Ultimately, the way to stop the threat of the kind of mega-terrorism that came to America’s shores nearly ten years ago is not simply through killing terrorists but in ending policies that help create them. As most Muslims long recognized, bin Laden was never an authority on Islam. He was, however, a businessman by training who — like any shrewd businessman — knew how to take a popular fear or desire and use it to sell a product: in this case, anti-American terrorism. The grievances expressed in his manifestos — the ongoing U.S. military presence in the Middle East, the humanitarian consequences of the U.S. policy in Iraq, U.S. support for the Israeli government, and U.S. backing of autocratic Arab regimes — have widespread appeal in that part of the world. Even if only a tiny percentage of Muslims accept bin Laden’s ideology and tactics, it will be enough to replenish the ranks of Al-Qaeda and like-minded groups as long as the United States continues to pursue such misguided policies.


Libya: Was Armed Revolt and Western Intervention the Only Option?

The decision by the United States and its Western allies to intervene militarily against the Libyan regime of Muammar Gaddafi may have averted a massacre, but it is fraught with serious risks of eventually costing even more lives. Furthermore, it could undermine the remarkable and overwhelmingly nonviolent pro-democracy movements which have been sweeping the Arab world in recent months. As will be described below, had Libya’s popular uprising maintained its largely nonviolent discipline of its early days, there probably would not be the bloody stalemate and other dangers now emerging in the conflict.

What has been notable about the successful civil uprisings against the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships, the serious popular challenges to the Yemeni and Bahraini dictatorships and the smaller-scale protests sweeping the region, is that they were completely indigenous and not sullied by foreign intervention. Furthermore, the chances of a successful transition to democracy following the ouster of an authoritarian regime are much higher if the overthrow results from a massive nonviolent movement, which requires the establishment of broad alliances of civil society organizations and the cooperation and consensus to make that possible. This contrasts with an overthrow resulting from a violent struggle – led by an elite vanguard, dominated by martial values and seeking power through force of arms rather than popular participation – which, more often than not, has simply resulted in a new dictatorship.

Providing military support to a disorganized, armed resistance movement means more people getting killed; it does not necessarily create a disciplined fighting force capable of defeating a well-armed regime, much less establishing a stable democratic order. When massive nonviolent resistance liberated a number of key Libyan cities back in February, popular democratic committees were set up to serve as interim local governments. For example, Benghazi – a city of over a million people – established a municipal government run by an improvised organizing committee of judges, lawyers, academics, and other professionals. Since the resistance to Gaddafi turned primarily violent, however, the leadership of the movement appears to now have significant representation from top cabinet officials and military officers, who for years had been allied with the tyrant, defected only in recent weeks and whose support for democracy is rather dubious.

This underscores that just because the incumbent regime may be evil and resistance to the regime is just, its replacement could end up being worse, a possibility greatly enhanced if power is seized through force of arms. For example, one could certainly make an argument that the mujahidin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s also had a just cause and that the civilian population of that country also needed to be defended from the threat of serious war crimes. However, 80 percent of the billions of dollars of US aid money sent to help the Afghan “freedom fighters” ended up in the hands of Hezb-i-Islami, an extremist minority faction, which slaughtered many thousands of Afghan civilians and is currently allied with the Taliban and attacking US forces.

How to Undermine Qaddafi

As mercurial and repressive as Gaddafi is, he still has a social base. It is not just foreign mercenaries that are keeping him in power. In his 41 years as ruler, he wrested the country away from neo-colonial domination, instilled a sense of national pride and – despite his mismanagement and capricious policies – led his country to achieve the highest Human Development Index ranking in Africa, surpassing scores of relatively wealthy non-African countries as Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Malaysia and Russia. There are many Libyans who, while unhappy with Qaddafi’s rule, are not ready to support the opposition.

For a revolution against a heavily armed and deeply entrenched dictator to succeed, the opposition movement needs to mobilize a large percentage of the population on their side, as took place in Tunisia and Egypt. Libyans need to engage in strategies that will make the regime come across as illegitimate and a traitorous, while making themselves look virtuous and patriotic.

Given how their history of suffering under colonialism and foreign intervention has made Libyans notoriously xenophobic, there is a risk of a nationalist reaction from Western bombing that could strengthen Gaddafi more than the damage done to Gaddafi’s war-making machinery would weaken him.

In addition, defections by security forces – critically important in ousting a military-backed regime – are far more likely when they are ordered to gun down unarmed protesters than when they are being attacked by foreign forces.

During the independence struggle in Kosovo during the 1990s, the United States and other Western nations stood by – and, to a limited extent, even supported Milosevic – when the ethnic Albanians were largely united in support of the nonviolent movement led by the moderate Ibrahim Rugova and the Democratic League of Kosovo. It was only when the violent and chauvinistic Kosovo Liberation Army took the lead in the independence struggle late in the decade that the West intervened on their behalf.

The 11-week NATO bombing campaign took over 500 civilian lives, provoked the worst of the ethnic cleansing and caused enormous devastation to Serbia’s infrastructure, temporarily setting back the Serbian pro-democracy struggle (which eventually triumphed in ousting Milosevic in a nonviolent insurrection in October 2000.) US and NATO policy toward Kosovo sent just the wrong message: if you are moderate and nonviolent, we will ignore you. If you take up arms, we will come to your aid.

Continued US support for the Yemeni and Bahraini governments as they brutally suppress nonviolent pro-democracy forces while simultaneously coming to the aid of the violent Libyan opposition similarly sends the wrong message.

It is critical, therefore, that those of us who would like to see democracy triumph in Libya challenge the myth that a military solution is the only alternative to ending Gaddafi’s repression and tyranny.

Did Nonviolence “Not Work”?

The overwhelmingly nonviolent, pro-democracy revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in January and February followed scores of successful unarmed civil insurrections over the past few decades, which have brought down dictatorships in scores of countries, including Serbia, Chile, Poland, Bolivia, Czechoslovakia, Nepal and the Maldives. In addition, despite government repression, nonviolent protests in recent weeks have seriously challenged the governments of Yemen and Bahrain, while smaller protests have broken out in Syria, Oman, Sudan, Iraq, Algeria and Morocco.

Yet, only in Libya has the pro-democracy struggle deteriorated into a bloody civil war, which has been used as an excuse for foreign military intervention.

Some analysts have tried to attribute this to Gaddafi, arguing that nonviolence “can’t work” when faced with such a ruthless tyrant. History, however, has shown repeatedly that dictators as willing as Qaddafi to unleash massive violence against unarmed citizens were nevertheless overthrown through large-scale nonviolent action.

From the Philippines to East Germany, autocratic rulers facing nonviolent civil insurrections have ordered their troops to fire on unarmed crowds, only to have them refuse, forcing the dictatorships to fall. On January 14, Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali declared a state of emergency and banned gatherings of more than three people, threatening that “arms will be used if orders of security forces are not heeded.” In response, hundreds of thousands of Tunisians defied the regime, bravely marching upon the dreaded Interior Ministry and a general strike effectively shut down the country. When the head of the armed forces informed the president he would refuse to orders to attack nonviolent protesters, Ben Ali and his family then fled the country.

In 1991, Gen. Moussa Traoré, the military dictator of Mali, ordered his troops to fire on unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators, killing hundreds, but the resistance movement remained nonviolent and, within days, enough soldiers deserted to force him from power. Similarly, General Suharto, who had ruled Indonesia for 33 years and who had more blood on his hands than almost any leader of the second half of the 20th century, bearing direct responsibility for the deaths for many hundreds of thousands of Indonesian and East Timorese civilians, was ousted in a largely nonviolent uprising in 1998.

In Libya, the protests were almost exclusively nonviolent during the first week of the uprising. It was during this period that the pro-democracy movement made the most gains, taking over most of the cities in the eastern part of the country. It was also during this period when most of the resignations of cabinet members and other important aides of Gaddafi, Libyan ambassadors in foreign capitals and top military officers took place. Pilots deliberately crashed their planes, flew into exile and otherwise refused orders to bomb and strafe protesters. Thousands of soldiers defected or refused to fire on crowds, despite threats of execution.

It was when the rebellion took a more violent turn, however, that the revolution’s progress stalled and was soon reversed, which in turn led to the United States and its allies attacking Libya.

It is certainly true that a successful, popular, nonviolent uprising against the Libyan regime would be a greater challenge for pro-democracy forces than in Tunisia or Egypt, given that Libya is what political scientists call a “rentier state,” a country that derives a substantial portion of its revenues not from the labor or its people, but from the “rent” of its natural resources to external clients. As a result, civil society tends to be a lot weaker. When a government is not dependent on the cooperation of its people to labor, pay taxes, serve in the security forces and perform other functions to prop up its rule, it becomes more difficult to dislodge the regime through noncooperation. The regime can bring in foreign workers, rely on oil revenues and hire mercenaries.

At the same time, there are still plenty of options the opposition could have relied upon, as well as avoiding some of the mistakes apparent in the initial phase of the uprising.

Smart strategy is key to any insurrection, whether it be armed or unarmed. The largely spontaneous Libyan uprising, in its nonviolent phase, focused almost exclusively on mass protests, making them easy targets for Gaddafi’s repression, rather than relying on more diverse tactics — including strikes (which could have been particularly effective in the oil industry), boycotts, slowdowns, and other forms of non-cooperation. In short, the failure of the nonviolent struggle was not because it was nonviolent, but because it was not well-organized strategically.

This does not mean that armed struggle has any greater chance of success, however. Military force challenges Gaddafi at his strongest point where he clearly has the advantages and, with all land approaches to the capital Tripoli through flat open desert, it is hardly an ideal situation for successful insurrectionary warfare either. And the slaughter has only increased since the movement turned violent.

Even now, if a cease-fire could be arranged, rebel-controlled areas could solidify a well-functioning democratic order other Libyans would desire to emulate, while dissidents within areas controlled by Qaddafi could begin a series of strikes and other actions which — combined with international sanctions targeting the regime — could seriously undermine the dictator’s ability to resist. However, the promise of continued US and NATO military support will make it unlikely that either side will abide by a cease-fire and a bloody stalemate could go on indefinitely. As a result, Western military intervention — despite the seeming moral imperative that prompted it — could prove to have made matters worse.


Libya, the ‘Responsibility to Protect,’ and Double Standards

Reasonable people can disagree on the appropriateness of the decision by the United States and its NATO allies to attack Libya in the wake of the Gadaffi regime’s offensive against rebel-held cities under the doctrine of “the responsibility to protect.” Though the intervention likely prevented a slaughter, there is no guarantee that it won’t simply protract a bloody military stalemate that could result in at least as many civilian deaths. There are any number of other legitimate concerns raised by those distressed over the fact that there is now a third country in the greater Middle East in which the United States has found itself at war. At the same time, there are also legitimate arguments being made by prominent human rights advocates arguing that there is still a moral imperative for the use of force to avoid a large-scale massacre by a criminal regime.

In any case, let’s be clear: Even if one can justify the war on Libya on humanitarian grounds, this is probably not why it’s actually being fought.

The establishment of a no-fly zone was supported by the League of Arab States, an organization composed primarily of pro-Western autocracies which have shown little hesitance in brutally suppressing their own pro-democracy struggles. There was initially a fair amount of popular support within many Arab countries — even among some pro-democracy activists normally critical of U.S. interventionism — for some limited outside assistance to prevent the Libyan opposition from being wiped out. However, the air and missile strikes have gone well beyond simply protecting civilians from bombings by pro-government forces to active support for an armed opposition. This, combined with the failure of rebels to take greater advantage of the large-scale outside support to regain the offensive, has resulted in growing nervousness, even from top officials. As Arab League secretary general Amr Mussa told reporters, “What has happened in Libya differs from the goal of imposing a no-fly zone and what we want is the protection of civilians and not bombing other civilians.”

Despite its potential of being abused, the concept of an international “responsibility to protect” is both legally and morally valid in theory. National sovereignty should not provide a tyrant protection to unleash a genocidal campaign against his own people. However, as horrific as the military response by Gaddafi towards civilians in suppressing both armed and nonviolent forms of resistance against his autocratic rule, it would naïve to claim that foreign intervention is prompted by Western leaders’ concern about protecting civilian lives. The United States, Great Britain and France have each allied with governments — such as Guatemala, Indonesia, Colombia and Zaire — which, in recent decades, have engaged in the slaughter of civilians as bad or worse as had been occurring in Libya.

The number of civilian casualties from Gaddafi’s attacks is difficult to verify. Some estimates run as high as 8,000, some as low as 1,000, but most estimates put the number of civilians killed during the five weeks between the start of the uprising and the Western intervention country at approximately 1,700 people, roughly the same number of civilians killed during Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon and its 2008 war on the Gaza Strip combined. Rather than referring those responsible to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or engage in military intervention to stop the slaughter, as has been the case of Libya, both the U.S. Congress and the administration vigorously defended Israel’s assaults of heavily-populated civilian areas and condemned UN agencies and leading international jurists for documenting Israeli violations of international humanitarian law and for recommending that officials of both Israel and its Arab adversaries suspected of war crimes be referred to the ICC.

The principal intellectual advocate of the Responsibility to Protect is Gareth Evans, former head of the International Crisis Group, who has also emerged as one of the most vocal proponents of what he referred to as “the overwhelming moral case” for military intervention against Gaddafi. Ironically, as Australian foreign minister, Evans was a major defender of Indonesia’s genocidal war against East Timor, which took the lives of over 200,000 civilians, and repeatedly downplayed and even covered up for Indonesian war crimes.

Hypocrisy and double-standards regarding military intervention does not automatically mean that military intervention in this case is necessarily wrong. Though many of us familiar with Libya remain dubious, it cannot be ruled out that events could transpire in such a way that this intervention could prove to have saved lives, brought stability, and promoted a democratic transition. However, it would be naïve to believe that the attacks on Libya are motivated primarily by humanitarian concerns. Certainly, there aren’t many Libyans – even those who support foreign intervention on behalf of the uprising – who believe this. Ongoing U.S. support of the Yemeni and Bahraini regimes as they brutally suppress nonviolent pro-democracy protesters raises questions as to why the U.S. is so quick to intervene militarily against the Libyan regime suppressing an armed rebellion by those whose commitment to democracy in more suspect.

As a result, any honest debate on Libya should not be based just upon the question as to whether foreign military intervention is necessary to stop widespread repression. It should also be as to whether the United States should take sides in a civil war. It should also be as to whether democracy can be imposed through air strikes. It should also be as to whether the best way to overthrow dictators is through a foreign-backed armed uprising or — as demonstrated in Egypt, Tunisia, Serbia, Chile, the Philippines, Indonesia, Poland and dozens of other countries — whether the people of the affected countries themselves be allowed to do so through the power of mass strategic nonviolent action.


Obama’s Veto on Israeli Settlements Demonstrates Contempt for International Humanitarian Law

The US veto of a mildly worded United Nations Security Council resolution supporting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and reiterating the illegality of Israeli settlements in occupied territories leaves little doubt that, in certain critical respects, President Barack Obama shares his predecessor’s contempt for international law. All fourteen of the other members of the Security Council voted for the resolution — which was cosponsored by a nearly unprecedented majority of UN members — not only situating the United States as an extreme outlier in the international community, but placing President Obama to the right of the conservative governments of Great Britain and France.

The draft resolution Obama found so objectionable called on both Israelis and Palestinians to act on the basis of international law, other obligations and previous agreements; to help advance the peace process through confidence-building measures and continued negotiations on final status issues; and for regional actors and the international community to support the peace process. The resolution specifically reaffirmed previous UN Security Council resolutions acknowledging that Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands occupied since the June 1967 war are illegal and constitute a major obstacle to peace. Unlike these previous resolutions, however, which called on Israel to withdraw from already existing settlements, this resolution simply insisted that Israel cease additional settlement activity in Palestinian areas.

Even this was still too much for President Obama, however, who had UN ambassador Susan Rice cast the first veto of his administration.

Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention — to which both Israel and the United States are signatories — prohibits any occupying power from transferring “parts of its civilian population into the territory it occupies.” The United Nations has repeatedly recognized that Israel is in violation of this critical international treaty, including UN Security Council resolutions 446, 452, 465 and 471, which were passed without US objections.

In addition, a landmark 2004 decision by the International Court of Justice also confirmed the illegality of the settlements, noting the illegitimacy of “any measures taken by an occupying Power in order to organize or encourage transfers of parts of its own population into the occupied territory.” Given that the World Court decision also enjoined the United States and other signatories to “ensure compliance by Israel with international humanitarian law,” the US veto of a UN Security Council resolution attempting to encourage compliance indicates that President Obama is willing for the United States to violate the decision by the World Court as well.

The administration acknowledged that its problem with the resolution was that it reiterated the illegality of the settlements. However, the official State Department position, in effect for nearly 33 years and never formally repealed, states categorically that, “While Israel may undertake, in the occupied territories, actions necessary to meet its military needs and to provide for orderly government during the occupation, for the reasons indicated above the establishment of the civilian settlements in those territories is inconsistent with international law.” Obama, in vetoing this resolution, is thereby undermining the official position of his own State Department.

Refusal to recognize the illegality of Israeli settlements at the United Nations was not always the US position. When Israel’s colonization drive began in the 1970’s, the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations were quite willing to do so. However, despite his distinguished legal background, Obama has demonstrated — on this issue, at least — he has even less respect for the law than Richard Nixon.

Dubious Rationalizations

Rice, in justifying the administration’s veto of the resolution, insisted that it is “unwise for this Council to attempt to resolve the core issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians.” However, the resolution did not “attempt to resolve” anything. Instead, it explicitly called for the resumption of negotiations. What Obama objected to, however, was the resolution’s insistence that such a resolution be based on international law, which is a very appropriate role for the United Nations Security Council.

In expressing the Obama administration’s opposition to the resolution, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — who, as a senator, was an outspoken defender of Israel’s colonization efforts and a critic of the United Nations — insisted that the Obama administration supported the idea of a settlement freeze, but, “We have consistently over many years said that the United Nations Security Council — and resolutions that would come before the Security Council — is not the right vehicle to advance the goal.”

Rice argued that “the only way to reach that common goal is through direct negotiations between the parties.” Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg reiterated, “We have made very clear that we do not think the Security Council is the right place to engage on these issues. We have had some success, at least for the moment, in not having that arise there, and we will continue to employ the tools that we have to make sure that continues to not happen.”

It’s unclear what “success” Steinberg is referring to. The right-wing Netanyahu government has rejected the Obama administration’s repeated calls for a freeze on settlement construction. The Palestinians have been demanding for nearly eighteen years through the US-led “peace process” that Israel stop expanding its settlements on their land. In that time, the number of settlements has more than doubled, dividing up the West Bank in such a way that creating a viable contiguous Palestinian state is now increasingly difficult. In insisting that the only way to deal with the settlements is through talks, which have clearly been incapable of stopping Israel’s colonization drive, a growing number of Palestinians and their supporters are reluctantly coming to the conclusion that — rhetoric to the contrary — the Obama administration actually wants to see Israel expand its settlements further and prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Obama’s insistence that resolving the conflict over Israel’s illegal settlements should be restricted to bilateral negotiations assumes symmetry in power and legality in the two sides that doesn’t, in fact, exist.

There are certainly plenty of rights and wrongs on both sides, and both Israelis and Palestinians equally deserve the right to live in peace and security. However, when it comes to the settlements, there is no question that the Palestinian position is consistent with international law and the broad international consensus of what is necessary for a just and lasting peace, and the Israeli position is not. In addition, without pressure from the United States or the United Nations, Israel – the occupying power and by far the region’s most powerful state – clearly has the upper hand in negotiations with a weak and divided interim governing body of an occupied population. The Obama administration’s position that Israel’s blatant violation of international law should not be addressed at the United Nations and instead should be subjected to bilateral negotiations between an occupying power and those under foreign military occupation is demonstrative as to just how far removed from reality Obama has become.

Obama’s veto raises serious questions as to whether his public criticism of Netanyahu’s construction of additional illegal settlements was sincere. It may be that the president’s public protestations against the right-wing Israeli prime minister’s settlement drive – which Israel had agreed to freeze as part of the US-sponsored roadmap for peace – was largely an effort to try to gain credibility from interested Arab parties and his liberal pro-peace and pro-human rights base in the United States. For when it comes down to actually trying to enforce Israel’s previous commitments and international legal principles that would end the expansion of settlements, he tries to stop it. As Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch observed, “President Obama wants to tell the Arab world in his speeches that he opposes settlements, but he won’t let the Security Council tell Israel to stop them in a legally binding way.”

Obama’s Political Alignment

In vetoing the resolution, Obama has placed himself to the right of scores of traditionally pro-Israel and decidedly mainstream leaders of the political establishment – including scholars, journalists, and former officials – who signed a letter to the president encouraging him to support the resolution. The letter, sent to him in January, stated, “The time has come for a clear signal from the United States to the parties and to the broader international community that the United States can and will approach the conflict with the objectivity, consistency and respect for international law required if it is to play a constructive role in the conflict’s resolution.” Noting how the resolution “would in no way deviate from our strong commitment to Israel’s security,” they warned that “deploying a veto would severely undermine US credibility and interests, placing us firmly outside of the international consensus, and further diminishing our ability to mediate this conflict.”

The signatories included US Trade Representative and Council on Foreign Relations Chair Carla Hills, journalist and former New Republic editor Peter Beinart, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering, former Assistant Secretary of State James Dobbins, former Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pastor, former New Republic editor and Atlantic Senior Editor and Daily Dish publisher Andrew Sullivan, former US Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci and former US Ambassador to Israel Ned Walker, among others. Obama, however, decided to place himself to the right of these decidedly centrist and moderately conservative figures.

Obama also placed himself to the right of the liberal and mainstream Jewish community, the majority of whom — according to public opinion polls — believe the United States should take a harder line against illegal settlements. Moderate pro-Israel groups like J Street and Americans for Peace Now had encouraged President Obama not to veto the resolution, but the president rejected their pleas, instead allying himself with such right-wing groups as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In short, this is not simply a matter of Obama catering to the “Jewish vote” or to “pro-Israel groups,” which were clearly divided on this issue. Instead, he was allying with the right-wing of the Jewish and pro-Israel community and with the right-wing overall, effectively endorsing the Bush administration’s view that international humanitarian law, the United Nations and basic international legal principles are not considered applicable if the violator is the United States or an ally.

Instead, Obama decided to ally with the neoconservatives and other right-wing opponents of international humanitarian law, such as House Foreign Relations Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), who claimed that accepting any criticism in the United Nations of Israeli policies in the occupied territories would be “a concession to enemies of the Jewish State and other free democracies.”

Also taking the position that criticizing a right-wing government’s violations of international humanitarian law is the same as attacking the nation itself was House Majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) — joined by the hawkish assistant House minority leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) in declaring the resolution “anti-Israel.” Their joint statement insisted, “We strongly urge the Administration to veto this resolution and to uphold our longstanding commitment to Israel’s security.”

Even the Conservative British Foreign Minister William Hague — traditionally a strong supporter of Israel — recognized the absurdity of such arguments regarding the resolution, which his government strongly supported, noting, “We believe that Israel’s security and the realization of the Palestinians’ right to statehood are not opposing goals. On the contrary, they are intimately intertwined objectives.”


The first impact of Obama’s veto is being felt in the occupied West Bank itself. Having gotten a green light from the Obama administration, the rate of illegal settlement construction in the two weeks since the veto has grown by 60 percent. Now that the Obama administration has made clear its unwillingness to stop Israel’s colonization drive on the West Bank, it is only a matter of time until the colonization of the West Bank will be so extensive to make the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel impossible. The end of a “two-state solution” and the permanent relegation of Palestinians into tiny, Bantustan-type enclaves will almost certainly lead to large-scale violence and bloodshed.

Supporters of international law and Middle East peace the world over denounced Obama’s decision; Human Rights Watch noted how it “undermines enforcement of international law.” Israeli journalist Ami Kaufman, writing in the Jerusalem Post, contends that, “The US has lost any ounce of credibility it had left with this latest move.” Writing in Haaretz, Gideon Levy wrote that Obama’s first veto “was a veto against the chance and promise of change, a veto against hope. This is a veto that is not friendly to Israel; it supports the settlers and the Israeli right, and them alone.” He added, “America, which Israel depends on more than ever, said yes to settlements. That is the one and only meaning of its decision, and in so doing, it supported the enterprise most damaging to Israel.”

A final casualty of Obama’s veto is what trust and goodwill remain among those of us who support human rights and international law. Due to Obama’s apparent contempt for these principles, many of us who enthusiastically supported his candidacy in 2008 will now likely sit out the next election. As a result of his Bush-like contempt for international law and the United Nations, we can no longer give him the benefit of the doubt. Obama’s veto shows that he is not a man of the left or the center, but a captive of the right-wing.

Libya, the United States, and the Anti-Gaddafi Revolt

Since the 1969 coup that overthrew the unpopular pro-Western monarchy of King Idris, Libya has been ruled by Col. Muammar Gaddafi (also spelled Qaddafi, Gadhafi, Khaddafi and other transliterations). Though long considered emotionally unstable, he was also considered politically stable, destined to maintain his iron grip on the country until he died a natural death. Now, even as he unleashes extreme and sometimes lethal violence against the growing pro-democracy uprising, his own days may be numbered.

As outlined below, the uprising comes despite decades of US hostility toward Gaddafi, which paradoxically strengthened the regime and arguably contributed to its longevity. It also comes despite the fact that, compared with the recent successful civil insurrections against dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, the challenges faced by the pro-democracy forces in Libya have been far greater.

Libya’s Unlikely Revolt

Under the recently overthrown dictators, the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes routinely rigged elections and marginalized opposition parties, but at least those parties existed. Not in Libya. Egypt and Tunisia had trade unions, popular organizations and active civil society groups whose activities were severely restricted and, at times, brutally suppressed, but at least they existed. Again, not in Libya. Furthermore, regional and tribal identity has always been much stronger in Libya than in Tunisia and Egypt. Libya’s situation is also distinct because, while urban areas have been the base of most of Egypt and Tunisia’s modern political leaders and movements – including the recent uprisings (and most pro-democracy civil insurrections in the world in recent decades) – rural forces have historically dominated politics in Libya.

Libya is an artificial creation consisting of what were three distinct regions – Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan – pulled together by the United Nations following the end of World War II and the defeat of fascist Italy, the colonial power. It is probably no coincidence that the city of Benghazi, located in the east, has been the center of the resistance to Gaddafi, who comes from the western part of the country. However, dramatic urbanization of Libyan society over the past half century and the resulting intermingling and intermarriage has substantially reduced regionalism and all indications are that the resistance is – like in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere – a genuine pro-democracy movement with strong support throughout the country.

Perhaps the most striking difference between the ongoing revolt in Libya and the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt is the level of violence inflicted by the regime against the pro-democracy movement. As of this writing, probably more than one thousand Libyans – virtually all supporters of the pro-democracy struggle – have been killed, and the death toll will likely rise considerably before it is over. Part of the reason, of course, can be attributed to the ruthlessness of Gaddafi himself. There is little question, however, that the recently deposed dictators Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak would have been equally willing to use such force to stay in power. Indeed, more than 300 Egyptian protesters and 200 Tunisians were killed in their respective pro-democracy revolutions. One reason there wasn’t greater bloodshed in those uprisings was that the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries were dependent on Western democracies (primarily France and the US, respectively) for security assistance and other strategic cooperation. Public opinion in Europe and North America would have demanded cutting such ties in the event of large-scale massacres, and many in the military leadership were unwilling to lose that relationship. Similarly, influential sectors of the government, intelligentsia and business class did not want to risk international isolation. By contrast, the Libyan elites have been largely isolated in the international community for most of Gaddafi’s reign, so they have little to lose.

Another reason for the high level of violence has to do with the nature of the resistance.

The resistance movements in Tunisia and Egypt, despite the absence of strong leadership, did engage in tactical coordination and at least some strategic thinking in their successful uprisings against their respective dictators, including a clear commitment to nonviolence. There was some rioting by a minority of protesters in the early phases of the uprisings (and the small minority of protesters who did riot constituted the majority of people killed), but – more significantly – there were virtually no shootings or other lethal attacks by pro-democracy elements against regime supporters, despite violence inflicted against them by security forces. By contrast, the protests in Libya have largely been spontaneous and – while the protesters have been primarily nonviolent and overwhelmingly unarmed – there have also been pitched battles between pro-government forces and civilians who have armed themselves with captured weapons, supported by members of the police and military who have joined the resistance.

Despite all this, Gaddafi’s regime appears to be crumbling. Virtually all of the cities in the eastern half of the country and a number of cities elsewhere have been liberated by pro-democracy forces. There have been defections of cabinet members, ambassadors in foreign capitals and top military officers. Pilots have deliberately crashed their planes, flown into exile or otherwise refused orders to bomb and strafe protesters. Thousands of soldiers have defected or refused to fire on crowds, forcing Gaddafi to rely on African mercenaries, which has only further angered the population against a dictator willing to bring in foreigners to murder his own citizens.

The biggest question, then, is not whether Gaddafi will be ousted, but how many of his fellow Libyans he is willing to bring down with him.

Gaddafi Versus the United States

Upon seizing power nearly 42 years ago, Gaddafi nationalized Libya’s foreign-controlled oil industry and ordered the closure of the Wheelus Air Base, one of the largest US facilities in the world. Despite this antagonism, Gaddafi’s anti-Communism allowed for some initial, cautious optimism from the United States about the new regime, but diplomatic relations were downgraded in 1973 and were formally broken eight years later.

Under Gaddafi’s rule, Libya made impressive, if uneven, gains in health care, education, housing, the rights of women and basic social services. His brand of Islamic socialism, combined with the country’s relatively small population and large oil reserves, made Libya one of the more prosperous and egalitarian societies in the Middle East, even though the promise generally outpaced actual performance. Though he was a classic strongman in one sense, Gaddafi also allowed for a relatively decentralized political system which allowed for direct democracy and popular participation in some limited political spheres.

However, political repression has always been widespread. As with the monarchy that preceded it, Libyan law has prohibited the formation of political parties and criticism of the political system. The regime prevented the establishment of independent human rights organizations or nongovernmental organizations of any kind, and the press was strictly controlled by the government. For most of Gaddafi’s rule, there were hundreds of political prisoners, and torture in detention has been common. Outspoken opponents of the government were murdered both at home and abroad.

Given that the US has long supported similarly repressive regimes in the Middle East, such repression was never a major concern of the eight US administrations that have governed since Gaddafi seized power. More problematic for the United States was Gaddafi’s outspoken advocacy of radical Arab and other “third world” causes and his support for extremist movements abroad, including terrorist groups, some of which were responsible for the deaths of American citizens.

During the early 1980’s, there was a series of military clashes between the United States and Libya, during which Libya attacked US navy ships and US forces destroyed Libyan military ships and aircraft and bombed coastal military installations. The Reagan administration supported a wide range of covert activities targeting Libya, including disinformation campaigns, propaganda, sabotage and support for opposition groups. The US also provided logistical support for French military operations against Libyan forces in the disputed Ouzou Strip region of northern Chad. The US goaded Mubarak, seen as a friendlier dictator, to confront Libya, resulting in a series of clashes along the Egyptian-Libyan border.

In 1982, the United States initiated a series of sanctions against Libya, including an embargo on Libyan oil and a new requirement for export licenses for most American goods. Comprehensive sanctions were imposed in 1986, including a freeze of Libyan assets and a ban of all trade and financial dealings with the country. These sanctions – which were not lifted until 2004 – also forbade Americans, including journalists and academics, from traveling to Libya without permission from the US government. (One reason for the conflicting analyses of the ongoing struggle is that, due to nearly a quarter century during which Americans were effectively prevented from even visiting Libya, there is a dearth of US scholars and journalists familiar with the country.)

Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, the US government issued a series of reports, widely circulated in the media, designed to discredit and demonize the Libyan government. These reports included charges of a Libyan hit squad targeting American officials, of coup attempts against Gaddafi and of the presence of a large underground chemical weapons factory. Subsequent investigations found all of these reports were false.

Indeed, prior to Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi was the Middle Eastern leader Americans most loved to hate. Reagan, for example, referred to him as the “mad dog of the Middle East.” Demonizing the eccentric Gaddafi, with his penchant for harsh and provocative rhetoric, proved useful for bolstering the domestic standing of successive US presidents and in feeding the sense of self-righteousness Americans feel for the US’s role in the world, but that same demonization may have also strengthened the Libyan dictator. Since, at that time, US-backed terrorists in Central America were killing far more civilians than were Libyan-backed terrorists, and the United States was supporting repressive Central American dictators with even worse human rights records than Gaddafi’s, there were also serious questions as to whether the United States had any moral standing in its crusade against the Libyan dictator. In certain respects, these hyperbolic and hypocritical attacks on Gaddafi created a kind of “crying wolf” effect, making it easier for some critics of US imperialism to downplay his repression, foreign intervention, support for terrorism and general thuggery.

In April 1986, following a terrorist bombing in Berlin that killed an American serviceman, the United States bombed Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya’s two largest cities, killing up to two dozen civilians, including Gaddafi’s daughter. The attack was widely condemned as a violation of international law, which recognizes the legitimacy of the use of military force only in self-defense from an armed attack, not for retaliation. The civilian casualties from the air strikes and the serious damage caused to the French embassy and other diplomatic facilities provoked outrage throughout the world and bolstered Gaddafi’s standing both at home and abroad.

The US justified the air strikes on the grounds that it would prevent future Libyan sponsored terrorism. Instead, it had the opposite effect: two years later, in retaliation for the bombing, Libyan agents blew up a US airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people.

When Gaddafi refused to hand over for trial in Britain two Libyan agents indicted for the terrorist attack, the United States successfully pushed the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions against Libya to force the government to hand over the suspects, an unprecedented action for an extradition dispute. (Ironically, during this period, and to this day, the United States has refused to extradite a number of right-wing Cuban exiles indicted on terrorist charges in several Latin American countries, including those responsible for blowing up an airliner.) These international sanctions prohibited the export of petroleum, military or aviation equipment to Libya, banned commercial flights to or from Libya, limited Libyan diplomatic representation abroad and placed restrictions on certain Libyan financial activities. When Libya eventually turned over the suspects for trial in 1999, UN sanctions against the country were suspended, though US sanctions remained in place for another five years.

In 2003, following prolonged negotiations with the United States and Great Britain, Libya announced that it was giving up its nascent biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs and accepting international assistance and verification of its disarmament efforts. In return, the United States ended its sanctions and restored diplomatic relations the following year. The successful elimination of the threat of Libyan weapons of mass destruction (WMD) should have been recognized as a triumph of patient diplomacy. However, in June 2004, a large bipartisan majority in the US House of Representatives passed a resolution claiming that the elimination of Libya’s nuclear program “would not have been possible if not for… the liberation of Iraq by United States and Coalition Forces.” In reality, the chief US negotiator, Flynt Leverett, writing in the New York Times, noted that Libya had approached the United States about eliminating its WMD programs well prior to the invasion of Iraq and the negotiations were successful because incentives, rather than just threats, were used for this successful nonproliferation effort. Indeed, given that Iraq had disarmed and was invaded anyway, the Iraq war could hardly be seen as an incentive for Libya to give up a potential deterrent.

What Now?

Even prior to the protests that were launched a few weeks ago following the Tunisian uprising, there were signs that Gaddafi’s rule was beginning to slip.

Gaddafi’s leadership style has always been repressive, impulsive, unpredictable and seemingly arbitrary. Yet his nationalism, anti-imperialism and professed socialism led many educated Libyans who formed the backbone of the government to stay loyal despite their misgivings, in large part in reaction to what was seen as the punitive and hypocritical sanctions imposed by Western nations and the constant threat of renewed US air and missile strikes against the country. It was only when the sanctions and threats of war subsided that there began to be a dramatic increase in resignations and self-imposed exile by prominent Libyans who had been members and supporters of the government. In short, the US-led efforts to isolate, punish and threaten the regime likely contributed to Gaddafi’s longevity as dictator. Once relations were normalized and the isolation and threats subsided, Gaddafi was seen less as the strong leader defending his nation against Western imperialism and more as the mercurial and brutal tyrant that he is.

The crimes committed over the years by Gaddafi’s Libya, while frequently exaggerated and not always unique, were and are still very real. Similarly, the double standards used to rationalize foreign policy are certainly not an unusual phenomenon in US diplomatic history, or in the foreign policies of any great power. Indeed, in recent decades, the United States has ignored killings of many thousands of unarmed opponents by such allied regimes in Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, Indonesia and Iraq, among others. Libya’s most serious offenses, in the eyes of US policymakers, have not been in the areas of human rights, terrorism, nuclear ambitions, subversion or conquest, but in daring to challenge American hegemony in the Middle East. Serving as an impediment to such American ambitions gives these regimes credibility and legitimacy they would not otherwise receive from large numbers of Middle Eastern peoples resentful of such foreign domination, thereby strengthening these regimes’ rule at home, as well as their influence throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Given this history, it is important that – despite the ongoing atrocities – the United States and other Western nations resist the temptation to intervene in ways that could provoke a nationalist reaction that could play into Gaddafi’s hands. It is no accident that Gaddafi chose as the backdrop to his bizarre and frighteningly belligerent speech on February 22 a building in Tripoli destroyed in the 1986 US bombing.

And this history of US intervention in Libya pre-dates the Gaddafi era – by 130 years, under President Thomas Jefferson, who sent Lt. Stephen Decatur to attack the base of the Barbary Pirates, later referenced in the opening line of the Marine Hymn: “to the shores of Tripoli.”

It is therefore important for the United States – as long as it continues to back other autocratic regimes in Bahrain, Yemen and other countries currently suppressing pro-democracy activists – to avoid appearing too sanctimonious in its denunciation of the Libyan regime and its support for the uprising. Some humanitarian and carefully targeted capacity-building assistance could be appropriate if done in conjunction with a broad consensus of the international community and with close consultation with pro-democracy forces. However, given the history of the United States in relations to Gaddafi’s Libya, the best thing the United States could do to support the pro-democracy movement is to avoid any unilateral actions that a dangerous and unstable dictator could use to his advantage.

Gaddafi joined the Libyan armed forces as a young man, not because of an interest in a military career per se, but because he wanted to become the country’s ruler. In the Middle East in those days, if you weren’t part of a royal family, the key to political power was through the military. What Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated, however, is that political power ultimately comes from the acquiescence of the people. And if people no longer recognize their leader’s authority and refuse to obey their leader’s orders, that person will no longer be the leader. This is the kind of power the United States and other Western nations must recognize. For democracy to come to the Middle East, it must come from the people themselves.

Obama’s Shift on Egypt

There has been a major shift within the Obama administration over the weekend regarding its policy toward Egypt. President Obama appears to have finally realized that reform within the regime, as the administration had been advocating until Sunday, will not placate the Egyptian people. The administration has yet to issue an explicit call for the authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak to step down, at least in public. However, yesterday, for the first time, Secretary of State Clinton and other officials began calling for “an orderly transition” to democracy.

The apparent change in the administration’s approach comes from the belated realization that nothing short of a Tienanmen Square-style massacre would probably stop the protests, and such measures using US-provided weaponry would inflame anti-Americanism throughout Egypt and the entire Arab world and would likely drive the anti-Mubarak resistance underground into the arms of violent extremists. White House sources indicate that the Obama administration has made it clear to the Egyptian military that any large-scale repression would have seriously negative implications for the US-Egyptian relationship, presumably meaning severing US military aid and cooperation, which has amounted to $1.5 billion annually. They are pushing for Mubarak and the military to bow out in place of an interim civilian coalition followed by free elections.

Given the ambivalent signals from the administration last week and continued support for Mubarak by some prominent Republican Congressional leaders and influential media pundits, there is concern within the White House as to whether the Egyptian regime has gotten the message. Already, Republicans and their allies are building the foundations of an “Obama lost Egypt” attack should a democratic transition lead to an anti-American government or serve as a precedent for further instability in the Middle East. Ironically, the position of hard-line elements in the Egyptian military may also be bolstered by human rights advocates and other critics of the Obama administration on the left who, understandably angry at US support for the longstanding support of the Mubarak dictatorship, have continued to underscore the outlandish statements late last week by Clinton and by Vice-President Joe Biden in which they appeared to be defending the regime.

There have been major divisions within the administration over the past few days regarding US policy toward Egypt. However, Biden, Clinton, and others who favored backing Mubarak, or steering the regime to a milder authoritarianism under Omar Suleiman and the military, appear to have lost out. Obama appears to have recognized that the future of Egypt will come not from Washington and other Western capitals, but from the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities and that, when an unarmed insurrection advances to the stage it currently is in Egypt, the United States can no more suppress or co-opt pro-democracy forces than the Soviet Union could do in regard to similar movements in Eastern Europe in 1989.

Indeed, despite the longstanding sense of fatalism among Arabs that Washington will ultimately impact what happens on the “Arab street,” the Arab street has proven itself capable of impacting what happens in Washington.

In belatedly pushing for a democratic transition in Egypt, Obama has demonstrated a rare show of spine against not only Congressional Republicans, but many prominent Democratic hawks, State Department veterans, the Israel Lobby, and other supporters of the Mubarak dictatorship. Obama may have finally realized that, at this crucial historical juncture, the United States cannot afford be on the wrong side of history.

This change is long overdue. The Obama administration, in rejecting the dangerous neoconservative ideology of its predecessor, had fallen back onto the realpolitik of previous administrations by continuing to support repressive regimes through unconditional arms transfers and other security assistance. Indeed, Obama’s understandable skepticism of the neoconservative doctrine of externally mandated, top-down approaches to democratization through “regime change” turned into an excuse for further arming these regimes, which then use these instruments of repression to subjugate popular, indigenous, bottom-up struggles for democratization.

At the same time, there was a subtle, but important, shift in the US government’s discourse on human rights when Obama came to office two years ago. The Bush administration pushed a rather superficial structuralist view. It focused, for instance, on elections — which can easily be rigged and manipulated in many cases — in order to change certain governments for purposes of expanding US power and influence. Obama has taken more of an agency view of human rights, emphasizing such rights as freedom of expression and the right to protest, recognizing that human rights reform can only come from below and not imposed from above.

Until now, this had largely been rhetorical. Military aid and arms sales to Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, and other repressive Arab regimes continued unabated. However, the White House’s statement yesterday calling for the Egyptian regime to support “universal rights, including the right to peaceful assembly, association, and speech,” the exercise of which would surely lead to its downfall, is indicative of an awareness that for democracy to come to the Arab world, it will come not from foreign intervention or sanctimonious statements from Washington, but from Arab peoples themselves.

The United States still needs to take a firmer stance toward Mubarak and the Egyptian military. The lingering hopes in Washington that Mubarak will be able to stay in office until the presidential election in September are completely unrealistic. And, regarding US policy in the region as a whole, the United States needs to stop propping up other Arab dictators and supporting the Israeli occupation through the ongoing military assistance.

However, this apparent shift away from the Mubarak regime — like the similar reversal in US policy toward the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia a couple weeks ago — serves as an important reminder as to where power actually comes from: Even if a government has a monopoly of military force and even if a government has the support of the world’s one remaining superpower, it is still ultimately powerless if the people refuse to recognize its authority. Through general strikes, filling the streets, mass refusal to obey official orders, and other forms of nonviolent resistance, even the most autocratic regime cannot survive.

One cannot help but admire the Egyptians, who — like the Tunisians, Serbians, Filipinos, Chileans, Poles, and others — have faced down the teargas, water cannons, truncheons and bullets for their freedom. However, as long as the United States remains the world’s No.1 supplier of security assistance to repressive governments in the Middle East and elsewhere, the need for massive nonviolent action in support for freedom and democracy may be no greater than here.

The United States and the Prospects for Democracy in Islamic Countries

The unarmed insurrection that overthrew the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia and the ongoing uprising in Egypt have opened up debate regarding prospects for democratization in Arab and other predominately Muslim countries. Many in the West are familiar with the way unarmed pro-democracy insurrections have helped bring democracy to Eastern Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia and Africa. But they discount the chances of such movements in Islamic countries, despite Tunisia being far from the first. Meanwhile, the United States — despite giving lip service in support for democracy — continues to actively support authoritarian governments in Islamic countries.

Obama was correctly cautious about offering more overt support for the 2009 pro-democracy uprising in Iran, recognizing that his advocacy could set back the more critical issue of curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He was also aware that the history of U.S. intervention, explicit threats of “regime change” by the previous administration, and the U.S. invasion of two neighboring countries in the name of democracy, had resulted in such strong anti-Americanism in Iran that the regime could use such support to discredit the pro-democracy movement.

Continuing Bush

Obama’s continuation of the Bush administration’s policy of arming and training security forces in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt, Jordan, and other dictatorial regimes in the region is much harder to defend.

The Obama administration, in rejecting the dangerous neoconservative ideology of its predecessor, has fallen back onto the realpolitik of previous administrations by continuing to support repressive regimes through unconditional arms transfers and other security assistance. Indeed, President Barack Obama’s understandable skepticism of externally mandated, top-down approaches to democratization through “regime change” is no excuse for his policy of further arming these regimes, which then use these instruments of repression to subjugate popular indigenous bottom-up struggles for democratization. (Ironically, this authoritarianism is then used to justify the large-scale, unconditional support of Israel on the grounds that it’s “the sole democracy in the Middle East.”)

Bush’s high-profile and highly suspect “democracy promotion” agenda provided repressive regimes and their apologists an excuse to label any popular pro-democracy movement that challenges them as foreign agents, even when led by independent grassroots nonviolent activists. It is presumably no coincidence that the only autocratic regimes that the Bush administration seriously pressed for reform were those that traditionally opposed American hegemonic goals. Bush called for spreading democracy “from Damascus to Tehran.” Yet, while Syria and Iran could certainly use more democracy, it is striking he did not similarly call for spreading democracy from Riyadh to Cairo. In many respects, Bush did for the cause of democracy what Stalin did for the cause of socialism: he used an idealistic principle to justify war, repression, and hegemony.

Furthermore, in recent years the United States has promoted “economic freedom” — a neo-liberal capitalist economic model that emphasizes open markets and free trade — as at least as important as political freedom. It is noteworthy that, according to 2007 figures, the largest single recipient of funding from the National Endowment for Democracy for the Middle East was the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE). Even during the height of U.S. assistance to Egypt and Algeria, the two most populous Arab countries, CIPE received three times as much NED funding as all human rights, development, legal, and civil society organizations combined. While liberalizing the economy from stifling state control can sometimes encourage political liberalization, the more extreme neo-liberal model of the so-called “Washington consensus” has tended to concentrate economic and political power in the hands of elites, particularly under authoritarian regimes, where the result is often crony capitalism rather than a truly free market, which weakens civil society rather than strengthens it.

The use of democracy as a disingenuous means of promoting U.S. hegemony was apparent in the way the Bush administration largely focused its attention on autocratic governments that opposed U.S. interests in the region. It criticized the human rights record of such countries as Syria and Iran and drew attention to the plight of certain suppressed minorities, dissident organizations, and individuals, while ignoring similar or worse abuses by pro-Western dictatorships. Even worse, at the request of the Bush administration in October 2002, a large bipartisan majority of the U.S. Congress supported the Iraq War resolution, asserting the right of the United States to invade Middle Eastern countries on the grounds of “promoting democracy.”

In a report released in 2008, polls showed that while the majority of Middle Easterners supported greater democracy in their countries, there was a decidedly negative attitude toward the stated goal of the Bush administration for “democracy promotion.” Only 19 percent thought such efforts had a positive effect on their overall opinion of the United States while 58 percent stating it had a negative effect. Another revealing poll indicated that although two-thirds of Americans surveyed believed Muslim nations cannot be democratic, an even larger majority of Muslims in predominantly Muslim countries believe they can and should.

To Obama’s credit, there has been a subtle but important shift in the U.S. government’s discourse on human rights. The Bush administration pushed a rather superficial structuralist view. It focused, for instance, on elections — which can easily be rigged and manipulated in many cases — in order to change certain governments for purposes of expanding U.S. power and influence. Despite his refusal to push Mubarak and other U.S.-backed dictators to reform, Obama has taken more of an agency view of human rights, emphasizing such rights as freedom of expression and the right to protest. This administration recognizes that human rights reform can only come from below and not imposed from above. Although this has largely been rhetorical and has not altered Washington’s propensity to provide security assistance to repressive regimes, it is this very right of protest that is key to the promotion of democracy in Islamic countries.

How Change Occurs

Throughout the world, in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries, in recent years there has been a dramatic growth of the use of strategic nonviolent action. In contrast to armed struggles, these nonviolent insurrections are movements of organized popular resistance to government authority. Either consciously or by necessity, they eschew the use of weapons of modern warfare. Unlike conventional political movements, nonviolent campaigns usually employ tactics outside the mainstream political processes of electioneering and lobbying. These tactics may include strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations, the popular contestation of public space, tax refusal, destruction of symbols of government authority (such as official identification cards), refusal to obey official orders (such as curfew restrictions), and the creation of alternative institutions for political legitimacy and social organization.

Freedom House recently produced a study that, after examining the 67 transitions from authoritarian regimes to varying degrees of democratic governments over the past few decades, concluded that they came overwhelmingly through democratic civil society organizations using nonviolent action and other forms of civil resistance. Such transitions did not result from foreign invasion and came about only rarely through armed revolt or voluntary, elite-driven reforms. In another study on civil resistance of more than 300 struggles for self-determination against colonialism, military occupation, and colonial rule over the past century, Maria Stephan and Erica Chenowith noted that nonviolent struggles were more than twice as likely to succeed as armed struggles.

Islamic countries have experienced this phenomenon at least as often as any place else in the world. In Iran, the tobacco strike in the 1890s and the constitutional revolution in 1906 were both cases of mass nonviolent resistance against neo-colonialism and authoritarian rule. In Egypt, the 1919 Revolution, consisting of many months of civil disobedience and strikes, eventually led to independence from Britain.

In addition to the recent uprising in Tunisia and the ongoing revolt in Egypt, there have been other recent successful unarmed insurrections in the Islamic world. Civil insurrections in Sudan in 1964 and 1985 overthrew dictatorial regimes and led to brief periods of democratic governance. A popular nonviolent uprising toppled Mali’s repressive Traore regime in 1991, resulting in nearly 20 years of stable democracy in that West African country.

In Iran, the largely unarmed insurrection against the Shah toppled the monarchy in 1979 and brought a brief hope for freedom prior to hard-line Islamists consolidating their power; the aborted 2009 uprising may mark the beginning of a more complete democratic revolution. Strikes and other forms of mass resistance forced the resignation of Bangladesh’s General Ershad and the restoration of democracy in 1990. A student-led movement in 1998 forced the resignation of Suharto, one of the world’s most brutal dictators, after 33 years in power in Indonesia.

In Lebanon, the 2004 Cedar Revolution forced Syria to withdraw its troops and end its domination of Lebanese government. The largely nonviolent 2006 Tulip Revolution ousted Kyrgystan’s corrupt and autocratic regime of Askar Akeyev. Years of protests against the 30-year Gayoum dictatorship regime led to free elections in the Maldives in 2008, resulting in the autocrat’s defeat. And in Pakistan, a movement led by lawyers and other civil society organizations resulted in the resignation of U.S.-backed military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2009.

There are also ongoing nonviolent popular struggles against foreign military occupation, including the Palestinians in the West Bank, the Syrian Druze in the Golan Heights, and the Sahrawis in Western Sahara. In addition to those that took place in Iran, nonviolent struggles have sporadically challenged autocratic regimes in Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Niger, Azerbaijan, and elsewhere.

Despite Western stereotypes to the contrary, Islamic countries have been at least as prone to large-scale nonviolent struggles as other societies. One of the great strengths in Islamic cultures, which make unarmed insurrections possible, is the implied social contract between a ruler and subject. Prophet Muhammad’s successor, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, stated this explicitly: “Obey me as long as I obey God in my rule. If I disobey him, you will owe me no obedience.” Such a pledge was reiterated by successive caliphs, including Imam Ali, who said, “No obedience is allowed to any creature in his disobedience of the Creator.” Indeed, most Islamic scholars have firmly supported the right of the people to depose an unjust ruler. The decision to refuse cooperation is a crucial step in building a nonviolent movement. Massive noncooperation with illegitimate authority is critical for any successful pro-democracy struggle.

The Role of the United States

What can the United States and other Western nations do to help this process? External support for nonviolent struggles in the Middle East can be a double-edged sword. Most struggles against a repressive regime would normally welcome international solidarity. But if the outside support is seen as coming from forces that don’t hold the best interest of the country’s people in mind, it can harm the chances of such a movement succeeding in its goals. At the same time, external actors have played an important role in supporting nonviolent struggles in the past. And thanks to enhanced international mobility and communication, such actors will likely play an increasingly important role in the future.

Aid for democracy assistance should be done very carefully to avoid backlash. Such aid worked in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, where the United States was seen as an ally to democracy. In most Islamic countries, however, the United States has been seen as an ally to dictatorship and foreign military occupation. So if Washington embraced oppositions groups too warmly, this could work against the public acceptance of these groups. At the same time, given the serious challenges facing pro-democracy groups struggling against the powerful autocratic regimes in the region, many activists will likely continue to look to the United States and other Western powers for, at minimum, moral and diplomatic support The United States can apply diplomatic pressure to free political prisoners, promote the right to free assembly, and support other means of creating the political space for nonviolent pro-democracy movements to grow. Western leaders who avoid messianic and self-righteous rhetoric when talking about democracy, pursue policies that neither practice nor condone violations of international humanitarian law, and directly communicate with and respect the wishes of nonviolent activists struggling against their autocratic rulers could help to rectify the historically counter-productive policies that have for so long hurt the cause of democracy in the region.

But it’s not clear that the United States even wants greater democracy in the Islamic world. For example, regarding Tunisia, the U.S. government was silent during the first weeks of protests despite savage repression by the government. Less than a week after the uprising began, Congress voted for an addition $12 million in security assistance to Ben Ali’s regime. Tear gas canisters lobbed at pro-democracy demonstrators were inscribed with the words “Made in USA,” a reminder of whose side Washington was on in the struggle against the dictatorship. By early January, the State Department began issuing mild criticism of the Ben Ali regime for firing live ammunition into crowds of demonstrators but was equally willing to blame the pro-democracy activists. While the movement was largely nonviolent, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley chose to characterize it by its most unruly components. He stated that the Obama administration was “concerned about government actions, but we’re also concerned about actions by the demonstrators, those who do not have peaceful intentions.”

On January 18, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed her concern over the impact of the “unrest and instability” on the “very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia.” She insisted that the United States was “not taking sides” and that she would “wait and see” before even communicating directly with Ben Ali or his ministers. (One can only imagine the reaction if she had similarly insisted the United States was “not taking sides” in the face of the similar recent pro-democracy uprising in Iran and Burma or if previous secretaries of state had expressed such neutrality regarding pro-democracy struggles in Serbia, Poland, and other Eastern European countries.)

Three days later, as Ben Ali was fleeing the country, President Obama came forward with the most pointed declaration in support of democracy in the Islamic world since he became president. He condemned the regime’s violence and applauded “the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people. The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard.” He further called on the Tunisian government “to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people.”

There has long been a sense of fatalism in the Arab world that they are simply passive victims of outside forces. Although it is easy to dismiss Obama’s comments as simply a last-minute show of support to the winning side, this shift indicates the significance of what happened in Tunisia: rather than Washington controlling the course of events influencing the Arab street, the Arab street is influencing policies emanating from Washington.

Indeed, at the point where a movement embarks upon a strategy of large-scale nonviolent action, there is little foreign governments can do to help or hinder its chances of success, other than pressure the regime to limit its repression. Large bureaucratic governments accustomed to projecting political power through military force or elite diplomatic channels tend to have little understanding of, or appreciation for, nonviolent action or any other kind of mass popular struggle or the complex, internal political dynamics of a given country necessary to create the broad coalition capable of ousting the incumbent authoritarian government.

Unlike changes of regime historically promoted by foreign governments during the colonial and much of the post-colonial period, which have tended to be violent seizures of power that install an undemocratic minority, nonviolent “people power” movements make change through empowering pro-democratic majorities. This serves as yet another reason why the Iranian regime’s claims that the United States is somehow responsible for the Green Revolution are so ludicrous. Every successful nonviolent insurrection has been a homegrown movement rooted in the realization by the masses that their rulers were illegitimate and that the current political system was incapable of redressing injustice.

As a result, the best hope for advancing freedom and democracy in Islamic countries comes from civil society rather than from foreign governments. The latter deserve neither credit nor blame for the growing use of nonviolent resistance movements in Islamic countries. As the Tunisian uprising demonstrated, the best hope for freedom in the Islamic world comes not from sanctimonious lecturing from Washington and certainly not from foreign intervention–but from the people themselves.